Notice about Cookies (for European readers)

I have been informed that I need to say something about how this site uses Cookies and possibly get the permission of my European readers about the use of Cookies. I'll be honest: I have no idea how the cookies on this site work. My understanding is that Google has added a boilerplate explanation. That's the best I can do.

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!






Follow by Email

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The fight with the self

This is all about that huge pile of virtually antique homework that is sitting on my desk and that, come hell or high water, I MUST return to students tomorrow. (Why must I? Well, some of it I've had since the first week of classes, which is getting ridiculous. And I now also have their papers to grade--which is serious. And I assigned the stuff, and they want to know how they did, and they're right to want to know the outcome of their work, for heaven's sake.) I did get all the assignments back to the students in today's 101. But I have two more classes' worth, and I'm in a battle with myself about how to get through it all.

Rather ironic that I was talking with my 101 today about dealing with frustration. Here I am, case in point.

Paul's advice: just check it, no comments. They did write self-evaluations, which I want to respond to at least a teeny bit, but the rest, OK, no comments. That will help--though it's hard for me not to comment (I really, really want to give them feedback about every teensy thing). But I still have to read through it all.

Granted, some of it is pretty awful--but those are the ones it's easy not to comment on. If a student who turns in completely insufficient, lousy work is truly lost, he or she needs to let me know that. (I emphasize that point, repeatedly. I don't know you need help unless you let me know you have a problem--and tell me what the problem is.) If--as I suspect is often the case--the student simply doesn't believe he or she needs to exert any particular effort, I reciprocate: I won't either.

But some of the assignments are actually OK, a few are even good. So why the phenomenal resistance?

Because I do want to comment. I want to help. I want to reach every single student on some level--and I know I can't, but sometimes I lose my hold on that knowledge.

Today's 101 was a weird class. It was more lecturey than I like, very "chalk and talk," though I did ask for responses (and had to endure some pretty powerful silence before responses started coming). We were talking about revision, editing, and proofreading--in that order--and what students will need to do for their revised papers. But once I'd pretty much finished with that, I realized that the other things I had planned to talk about would decidedly put the students to sleep. So I changed plans midstream, as I am wont to do. That's when I talked with them about working through frustration. I talked to them about how reading difficult, boring, challenging material changes how we think, about how being an adult in the world requires complex thinking. About how one's way of dealing with frustrations make a huge difference in one's life--and that frustrations are part of being a grown-up. I did not address the fear factor, though that has been on my mind a lot (their fear of failure; their bigger fear of success). I let them go early. I'm not sure how I feel about the way that all went. Good idea? Bad idea? Did they get anything at all out of it? I don't know. I don't suppose I ever will know.

And that may be the hardest thing about this particular job. I've mentioned it before; Paul and I talk about it frequently. We don't often get to see the fruits of our labors. It takes a long while for the seeds of change that we plant to sprout, to grow into maturity, to fully blossom in the students' writing--or reading. What we do with them now, when they are freshmen, will probably not be fully apparent until they are at least sophomores, if not juniors, or seniors. And for some, the seeds fall on fallow ground. But the faith that the work will, in fact, pay off, is tenuous at times. My faith is. I speak only for myself.

Absent that faith, it's hard to face the mounds of homework. "Oh, God, why did I assign all that? What was the point? Did they get anything at all out of it? Are they spinning their wheels; am I spinning mine?"

So, Pollyanna, let's refocus a bit here. Let's look at the good that I've seen this week. I didn't blog yesterday (blasted off campus to go to the last in that dance class series in Manhattan--what joy that was, but what a good thing it's now over). But yesterday two students from the short-story class came to see me about their mini-papers, both with great ideas, both ready to completely shift gears in terms of their writing for the class. It was a genuine pleasure to talk with these bright young men, to see their ideas clicking away, to make a suggestion and see it caught up, carried forward. This, I felt, is what teaching college should be like.

In fact, that short-story class is a delight generally. Most of the students are still hanging on, hanging in there. The discussions are interesting; I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by something they see in the readings that I didn't see. I still have faith that most of them will improve their papers over time. (I did move their next few assignments a little later in the semester, as I realized I'd be sitting on what I collected today for some time: no reason to make them rush to write more when I know I won't be grading it for a while.) I enjoy working with them; I feel they've got a good rapport with each other. The groups today seemed to work particularly well: I'll check in with them how they feel about sort of solidifying the groups (with the caveat that missing group members will require some shuffling around so the groups stay the right size). It's a good class, going well.

And just a quick glance at today's homework from 101 showed that at least some of the students did a terrific job on the assignment. The directions may not have been completely clear for some of them, but the ones who did what I asked (looking at a particular paragraph in their own papers to evaluate whether it was unified and coherent) did it very nicely. I'm hoping it gives them a sense of how to get some objective distance on their writing....

Sigh. Cleansing breath.

OK, I've almost talked myself to a point where I can tackle the work I need to do tonight without too much psychic malaise. I know I usually work better at the office, but tonight I think I'll carry it all home with me, give myself a little longer a break before I return once more unto the breach. Not precisely like a greyhound in the slips, straining upon the start--more like a mongrel pulling against the leash, trying to run away--but back to the breach regardless.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Horseshoes and Handgrenades

Those are the two instances in which "close" counts. So the fact that I was close to having all the papers marked and back to the short-story class this morning actually means I didn't do what I meant to--should have. I did save the best for last, so the two I had left to finish this afternoon were pretty good (mercifully)--and I know that at least one of those students will indeed pick up her work before the next mini-paper is due. But I have managed to dig myself into a right nice little hole, with a big backlog of miscellaneous homework to plow through before I can turn my attention to the big essays that I'm starting to collect. I'm experiencing an awkward domino effect: because I lost a lot of the weekend (best laid plans and all that), I got up at 5 this morning to finish up. I didn't quite finish up, so I have that backlog--but I'm too fried (from getting up at 5) to tackle it tonight. So I will have to work on the backlog tomorrow--but now I've also got serious papers to mark. Plus, from the papers I did manage to return, a number of students (rightly) felt sufficient panic to want to come see me before their next papers are due. So I'll be meeting students tomorrow when otherwise I would be getting caught up on assignment marking. Which pushes back the grading of the significant essays, which means more early mornings....

OK, not dominoes. Snowball. Great, honking, huge snowball, gaining size and momentum. Possibly about to trigger an avalanche. Please have St. Bernard dogs standing by. The little neck-kegs should be filled with bourbon, please, or scotch.

But I do know--despite how frantic all the above sounds--that I will work more productively and with more patience if I give myself a some time to build up my reserves. The snowball may grow a bit in size, but after some recuperation tonight, I'll have more strength to put myself in its path and start knocking it down to size. For now, I'm going to do some shuffling of papers ("organizing" feels productive but requires little brain effort), some house-keeping of official documents (checking the "final" roster against my records), and then will call it a night as soon as my official office hour is over. Early home, early fed, early--I hope--to bed. And then, what is it, that thing that Scarlett says? Oh, yeah: tomorrow is another day. I'll think of that tomorrow, when I'm stronger.

And somehow it will all get done and back to the students. It always does. Though I still don't understand why the cats steadfastly refuse to mark any homework or papers at all. Useless animals.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Weird day

I've been through amazing mood swings, rotten moments and lovely ones, a complete mixed bag. Hardly know how to summarize.

Both classes went well. I didn't try to do the usual group work with them: I did more of a combination of lecture (providing the setting and some background info that helped them get oriented to what's going on in the Lopez essay) and whole-class discussion. Interestingly enough, students who've not wanted to speak up before, in the theoretically more friendly, supportive system, were much more forthcoming today. Today's students kept their scoffing at the music to themselves--and instead, understood why I played it. One of the weaker students in one class did a really good job on her journal (using the new form, which allowed her to have her confusions) and was so encouraged that she asked if she could see me for help. Yes! We have an appointment on Monday.

On the other hand, there is a huge bruhaha going on over when to have the committee meetings for one of the committees I'm on. Long, long story, but essentially, those of us who have been on the committee longest and know how it needs to work are at loggerheads with those who are either relatively inexperienced or brand-new. I understand their reluctance to have meetings when we usually hold them (I don't like it much, either), but they also don't understand how the process works. I'm afraid I rather lost my temper with one new member of the committee in an e-mail (I wrote the testy e-mail last night: apparently yesterday was a day for losing my temper), and I was still feeling ragged about the whole thing this morning. Had sort of calmed down, when Bruce ran into me in the hall this afternoon and begged me to come up with a compromise--but I'm not the chair of the committee, so it's not really up to me. I did let the chair know compromises I could consider--but we'll have to see what we can work out. Right now, it's very uncomfortable.

On the other hand, Bruce also told me how much he values my contributions to the department and made it clear he thinks highly of my input. That felt lovely indeed.

I'm pretty much falling over tired tonight--weirdly, I feel worse, more tired, after two relatively good night's sleep, than I did running on fumes. I will be on campus tomorrow: I've got two appointments tomorrow near campus, and the in the afternoon, there will be a ceremony to unveil a brick in the NCC memory wall, presented in honor of my dear, departed friend and colleague, Denise Broadhurst. It will be a happy-sad occasion: glad to have her memory honored--and I am very honored indeed to have been tapped by her family to be there as their proxy--but very sad that she is no longer with us. Still, it will be good to be there to take photos and copious notes for her family, so they can have the experience vicariously. Denise is greatly missed.

And here endeth the teaching week--though the work will continue all through the weekend, as usual....

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Keeping my temper

I was so tired getting home late last night, after the push of the last few days (and consequent lack of sleep) that I canceled the short-story class this morning so I could have a shot at getting a decent amount of sleep. I did, and I had a nice, relaxed morning--and still managed to get the reading journals for today's 101 class marked before class (with a little time to spare). So I went in to teach feeling relaxed and chipper.

And ended up losing my temper a bit. I didn't mind so much when someone said, "I read on Rate My Professor that you haven't given a grade since 2004. Is that true?" So first, no, it isn't true. (I gave a couple of A's last semester, in fact.) We talked about the value of an A, why they are hard to get, and I gave them my rap about that web venue (until people have to sign in with a photo ID and evidence of their final grade in the class, who would take it very seriously?). All OK, though I might have gotten a little wound up about the anonymity of "ratings" in Bash My Professor. But I positively hate when students say, "I read this like five times and I don't get it at all"--and then ask questions that are clearly answered in the text, answers that would be obvious if they'd been paying any kind of attention. I resorted to the "pushing the car" example: no matter how hard you push, standing behind your car and leaning against the back bumper, you're not going to get anywhere in a hurry. Doing the wrong thing over and over again, or doing it "harder," isn't going to get you where you need to go.

So I was annoyed enough about the walls the students were building against understanding--the essay isn't that hard! But then some of them started giving smart-ass replies to their own questions. "Are there any fish there?" they asked. "The author talks about that, specifically: what does he say?" Some of them said they couldn't find it--fair enough--but what pissed me off were the ones who were saying, "They swim? They have gills? They're alive?" And they knew I was getting annoyed. I got pretty testy, reined it in, got testy again, reined it in, and at the end of class was patiently trying to say something along the lines of, "If you are willing to make the effort, to ask the legitimate questions and work to find the answers, you'll learn something"--but they were too busy trying to out-do each other in making fun of everything to even hear me. So I stopped mid-sentence and said, "Never mind. Turn in your homework, put the desks back in rows, and I'll see you on Monday." I heard one of the bigger smart-asses say, "OK, she got me." I doubt I actually did, but truly, if they don't want to listen to what I have to say, why should I keep fighting to make myself heard?

It did me good, however, at the end of class, that one student--who has been very clear about her frustration all along--came up and said, "What were you going to say at the end? I was listening, and I want to know." Of course, by then I'd spoken to several other students about problems with homework or other issues, so I'd forgotten what I'd been about to say--but she prompted me with a verbatim repeat of what I'd said before I stopped. So I did finish the sentence for her, and reassured her that the work wouldn't always seem so hard, that she'd get better at it, and her process of asking the questions, struggling with the text, was in fact the right thing to do, the right way to try. She may still be pushing the car a little, but at least she cares about trying to learn. The only thing I wish is that she'd sit down with me so we could go over readings together, with more time than I can devote in class.

Another nice note: the other student who was hanging about at the end of class, and who also made a point of letting me know he'd been listening, was the student I've written about earlier, who had tried to switch classes only to end up back in mine. He's doing great in terms of staying on top of the work and contributing to class discussion. I'm a little worried about his writing, from what I see in his self-evaluation, but I'm quite happy to have him in the class. It's lovely when a student turns around like that.

But for the others--and even for some of the ones who were really trying, working hard, doing things the right way--I'm asking them to think, and they've never had to before. It's sad sad sad what happens to their minds in their education prior to this point. Or more to the point, what doesn't happen. They want to learn, most of them; they want to be able to do what we ask, but they shut down at the first frustration. The yokking around is a response to fear and frustration. I need to talk with them more about that....

But I do hope the discussion goes better tomorrow. The essay they're reading, Barry Lopez's "Gone Back into the Earth," talks about a raft trip down the Grand Canyon with the musician Paul Winter. So I brought in a recording of Winter playing his saxophone in the Grand (not on the trip Lopez is talking about, but the same idea) and photos I took when I rafted the foot of Glen Canyon, from the dam to Lee's Ferry (the put-in spot for the rafts trips down the Grand). Ours was a float, no rapids at all, and the canyon walls are nowhere near what they are in the Grand, but the scenery could give the students at least a vague idea of what Lopez was talking about. They scoffed at the music (I understand why they don't like the music, but it's such a juvenile response, it gets my hackles up); I have no clue how they felt about the photos. All in all, the class just wasn't much fun--and I had gone into the class feeling very upbeat about it. Ah well. I'll try to keep a better hold on my temper tomorrow and see if I can work with the students better as a consequence.

Because I didn't blog yesterday, I didn't mention that yesterday, when I staggered in at 8:30 a.m., steamrollered from having been marking assignments late and getting up early to do more of the same, I was met in the mailroom by one of the office staff, who was in the process of copying the formal grade grievance being filed by the student who came in with her mother the other week. My job: to respond in writing. No big deal in a way: the student doesn't have a case except "I tried hard" and "she's too strict for a community college." But that didn't keep me from feeling a surge of adrenaline, as if I were being confronted all over again. Last night and earlier today, every time I thought about having to write the response, I'd be blasted by another wave of tension. So after class today (and after a brief meeting with a charming student), I wrote up my response, added my textual evidence (copy of the syllabus, copy of the essay assignments), and turned it over to continue through the official channels. Paul has been through this, and he said it will very likely end there. Certainly there is no violation of my syllabus or of the "contract" in the paper assignments that would lead to any further steps--and those are the only criteria for a grievance. So, that should now be well and firmly in the past. Jesus, I hope so.

And now, I'm going home. It's wildly early, comparatively speaking, but I'm not taking even the tiniest shred of work home with me. I'm going to go to the library, get two books on my pleasure-reading list, and then curl up on the sofa and indulge myself. After the push of the past few days, I think I deserve it. Since I don't have a meeting again tomorrow (miracle! twice in one week!), I have plenty of time before class to at least get the students' reading journals done and back to them, then the usual weekend grading/marking to be ready for next week. And maybe I can even get a full night's sleep again tonight, which should--I hope--help me keep my temper tomorrow, should anything come up that might tend to push my (rather large) buttons.

And yes, I still love what I do, and am grateful beyond measure that I get to do this for a living.

Monday, September 20, 2010

This'll be quick

Let me do the math: I have assignments from 41 students to mark for tomorrow's classes. I can do about 5 students' worth per hour. I don't have a meeting tomorrow morning, thank god, and my first class is at 1:00. I can probably squeeze a few into the break between classes. But that still means I've got at least another three hours of work tonight, more if I can stand it.

It's one of those days when I resent the fact that I need to do things like go to the bathroom, never mind eat.

And let's not even look at the stack of stuff I've pulled out of the "to be marked" piles, holding onto it to mark some other day, to return in some future class.

Once again, I remind myself that if I didn't assign it, I wouldn't have to mark it. And I assign it--and mark it the way I do--because I think it's pedagogically important. This job would be sooooo much easier if I didn't care.

Also wanted to make note: I'd decided to try a new reading journal form for the 101 classes this semester, based on some prompts about critical reading in their handbooks. It's a disaster already. It forces them to have answers, instead of allowing them to have questions. Possibly the most important thing I've learned in my years of teaching is how important it is to not only allow students room for their confusions, but to actively encourage them to be aware of and work with confusion--so they can experience the process of working through it to clarity. Doing that creates real learning; looking for answers before the students have actually arrived at them encourages BS, meaningless stuff along the lines of "The author has really proved she cares about her point" (without any indication that the student in fact understands what the point is, or why the author cares). So, I'm ditching the form, using a different one for the rest of the semester. It's also a bit of a test drive: I've not used this specific format for 101 classes before, but it's a pretty close adaptation of journals I've used successfully in other classes (and I think is an improvement on the forms I used to use in 101). So I'm hoping the students can make the switch without too much whiplash and that they'll find the new form more conducive to the kind of questioning I want them to engage in.

We'll see (my new mantra: move over Scarlett O'Hara). But now I'm going to head for home, shove some food in my body, maybe take a brief, restorative nap, and return to marking those assignments, ticking them off as I go along. (That's 40 left, 39, 38, 37....)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yesterday in review

I blasted off campus the minute I finished my last class yesterday, didn't even stop at the office to drop off my huge, wheeled pack that has all my teacher stuff in it. I'd already loaded the student assignments from the preceding three classes into the car, facilitating a quick exit. However, I find that the blog not only helps me decompress at the end of a day (which is its usual primary function for me), it also helps me reinforce for myself what has gone well, reframe what I can do better. So here I am on Friday morning, blogging about the end of the week

And a few things happened yesterday that I thought I did well. One has to do with a student I think I complained about earlier: he had e-mailed me over the weekend to tell me he couldn't do the homework because he couldn't get his books yet, and I told him--quite firmly--that the excuse wouldn't fly, as the books are on reserve in the library. On Tuesday I saw him in the department office and realized he was probably looking to get out of my section and into someone else's. OK. Then I ran into a the colleague whose section the student had wanted to enter: Larry (my colleague) told me about their conversation. I loved how Larry handled it. He explained to my student that we all have to be tough about the rules, especially at first, or students will take advantage of us. He told the student that although I'm tough, I'd work with him to help. He told the student he'd get a lot out of staying in my class. And he told the student that, in any event, it was too late for him to switch boats, as Larry also has rules and a lot of assignments, and the student would be unable to get caught up.

I wasn't sure what would happen next, but Larry's guess was right: the kid showed up for class on Wednesday--with one of the books, and with some good contributions to the class discussion (for which I praised him)--and after class he asked when he could talk to me about his various problems. He came to my office hour yesterday and we worked out solutions so he can get on track. I praised him for coming to see me, for working things out, for sticking with it. I think he has a lot of potential, actually, now that he has had the attitude adjustment from talking with Larry. (I did tell the student that I knew about that conversation: initially I thought he'd been lying about not getting an e-mail I'd sent, but in fact we were talking about two different e-mails, one of which he truly did not get. But I'm glad he knows that professors talk to each other....)

The other thing I felt good about is how I handled the problem of students who hadn't had their books on Tuesday and didn't have their homework either day. In one small group, not one of the three had the book on Tuesday. They were all pretty pissed off that they were penalized an absence for that--but all three had the book yesterday, so they got praised for at least taking that step in the right direction. Another student at least had photocopied the reading: she was in a group with students who had their books and had done the work, but was unable to contribute because she didn't have her journals. I told all four of them that it still was important that they submit the reading journals. They've been instructed to do so via e-mail over the weekend: that way they can get theirs back when everyone else does, and they can have the benefit of my comments moving forward. I don't think it's fair to give them full credit for the work, but something is better than nothing. And they still have the "no books" absence, but they've now been encouraged to do better, given positive reinforcement.

I was a little harsh in that class at a few points, when students were fussing about the work load, for instance, or were making it very clear they have no real interest in putting forth any effort. I said, "If you don't like what this class requires of you, vote with your feet. You're perfectly welcome not to come, to withdraw. But if you're here, this is how my class works." I also said, "Yes, it's a lot of work. Work is how you learn. If you don't go through the struggle, your brain doesn't actually change. And this is a writing class. We learn how to write by writing." I said it all very cheerfully, but I think they started to see that this cheerful and friendly professor has an evil twin....

I'm mulling over how I presented those ideas. I was smiling and cheerful as I said them, but I'm not sure whether I was clear enough--or if there's a way to be more clear without seeming mean. On the other hand, I think there is a place for what the students perceive as meanness, what I see as being strict, firm. God knows some of them need a very firm hand.

But, on a final note about that last class, not only are they beautifully lively (I'm going to spend the semester pulling them out of the rafters, but man, that's so much better than trying to haul them off the floor)--there is one student in that class who is a dream. He has the easy confidence of a person who is readily social, knows his strengths, and has been around the block a time or two and so knows what matters. I was not surprised to hear that he's been in college before. And his reading of the essays is great, very smart, shows refreshing depth of understanding. He popped out with an answer to another student's question that was just perfect: the idea I would have tried to elicit but presented from a student's perspective--and like it was no big deal to get to that understanding. He's going to be a great model for the other students. I'm very happy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day is done

And all in all, a pretty good day, even though I was operating on less sleep than I find necessary for optimal brain strength. I'll use that as my excuse for all the things I forgot to say to students in classes both yesterday and today--but really, the problem is that I get caught up in whatever is going on and lose track of all the other rabbits in the underbrush.

I was a little worried yesterday about having enough of substance to go over with the short story students to make a productive class, but I needn't have been concerned: we filled the 75 minutes easily,what with talking over handouts, reminders about paper formats and technicalities about writing--not to mention revisiting the stories, making sure we'd discussed everything adequately--and addressing their concerns about their mini-papers, due Monday. In fact, I could easily have gone on longer.

Somehow I never have that worry about comp classes. I may be unsure what I'm going to do, but I'm always sure I'll have more than enough to fill the time--and would even if I had twice the time. Just as one instance, we never, ever, ever, discuss everything we could about the essays we read. Some of that results simply from lack of time, but some of it also is because I want the ideas, questions, comments, observations, to come more from them than from me. I don't mind doing some directing of their attention--in fact, it's not only appropriate, it's necessary (I am teaching them, after all)--but I don't want to force-feed them what I see as significant. It's a fine line to walk, but I find the discussion is generally more productive when they initiate topics arising from what they see (or don't). In addition to all that we leave undiscussed in the readings, there is all the information about writing well that there is to impart--and that's effectively endless. But there's only so much that can be done in the abstract: ultimately, they need to try it out, make the mistakes, and try to learn from the mistakes. And there's only so much they can take in at a time. Much as I'd love to do a Vulcan mind-meld with them, everything they're learning needs to soak in and gradually become accessible to them as part of their own tool kit. There is more for them to learn than they could possibly incorporate in 30 classes--or 60, or even more.

It's comforting to remember that, from time to time. I'm good, but I am not Spock.

It was very nice to be able to attend the Women's Studies meeting today, too. I've wanted to participate since I started at Nassau, and for one reason or another, I've not been able to until this semester. I still may not be able to attend every meeting (this chunk of time on Wednesdays after my second class is a godsend: it's early enough that I can put in a number of hours of work while my energy is still relatively high and without being on campus until the middle of the night). But it's lovely to have the block of time otherwise unscheduled.

I have a ton of work to do over the weekend, of course, which I also hope to chip away at tomorrow, but right now, I'm going to take myself out for dinner and begin my night-time wind-down relatively early so I can approach tomorrow at least relatively bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Metaphorically speaking of course.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Very quickly

I should probably not have signed up for the dance class series I'm going to be taking the next three weeks. I have to blast out of here to get to Manhattan on time: originally I was going to take the train so I could work on the way there (not likely on the way back, as I have no idea how late the class will run--but it doesn't even start until 8). But today I got the unwelcome reminder that I have a committee meeting at 9:30 tomorrow morning, which means being up at 6, so the whole subway to Penn Station, wait for a train, 50 minutes to home, then drive to the house, just puts me home way too late. I'll be home much later than I'd like as it is, but if I drive, I lose the work time on the way in to the city, but I get home a hell of a lot faster (please heaven! there are always the possibilities for huge delays, but I'm hoping not).

And I already am doing triage. I had hoped--with a rather enormous measure of self-delusion--to be able to get one set of reading journals marked and back to students by tomorrow so they'd have comments to refer to before they have to do the next bunch. Not even close. Even the time on the train wouldn't be enough. Ah hell. But ah well.

True, I could probably get a journal or two marked in the time I'm taking to blog, but never mind. Since I wouldn't get them all done anyway, even if I did use this time to mark, I figure I'll do better to have my little bit of decompression before I drive into the City and do something completely, utterly selfish.

About which I feel rather smug, not guilty. It is absolutely life-saving to have obsessions outside of this job.

Classes went OK today, but somehow today we never got to actually discuss the essays, whereas yesterday we at least got a start. Well, we'll see how much we can get covered on Thursday. I have another wodge of handouts for the students the next few classes (those always eat up a fair amount of time). And I had a few students new to my 101s today: I realize I forgot to emphasize with one of them that he's used up two of his allowed three absences, but both of them I told that I was expecting them to be able to get themselves caught up--and to contact me if they have questions--but I'm not going to go over everything with them. Another student was in class today having missed last week: he was very confused--one would think he'd not been in class that first day, though he was--but he seemed a little less panic-stricken when class was over and after I talked to him for a minute.

It's interesting to see who is already willing to do the hard work, who thinks the "I didn't get my books yet" excuse will fly....

Anyway, I'm going to throw this up on the blog without rereading, proofing, anything. Gotta shove some food in my face and get on the road to dance class. It's only three weeks: I hope it doesn't screw me up beyond this week!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Now we're in it

Collected two reading journals from each of two classes, another two batches of two coming tomorrow. I'd really love to get something back to the students by their next class so they have some feedback before trying again, but I'm not sure how much I'll be able to do. I was supposed to meet a former student (and former cat sitter) this evening so she can bounce ideas off me about going to grad school: she wants to go but is having doubts. I'll provide whatever advice and feedback I can, but mostly I think she just needs to talk it out with someone other than her mother or fiance. I do love that I have a handful of former students who still come to me for advice, or just to keep in touch. I may see another (from the dream 281 of 2009) tomorrow. I hope so: it'd be great to hear what he's up to.

On a less lovely note, I did meet with a former student who wanted to complain about her grade from last semester. Yes, last semester. She's just coming to me now to bitch about it: that in itself should tell you something. She's 23--and brought her mother with her. That should tell you something else. I told her mother that I could only talk to the student herself (that's what the college attorney says: the student is an adult, after all): mom was very angry but acquiesced. This girl felt that it was unfair that she failed--despite the fact that she got a zero on the second essay (because she turned the first version in too late for either one to count), despite the fact that she failed the final paper (worth 25 percent of her grade) because it was about two and a half pages out of a required five to seven, despite the fact that the first version of her first paper was something like a 43 (after being turned in late and having a number of errors). But because she turned in most of her homework--she was making a big stink about the last two pieces of homework, which she says she turned in (and which would maybe have raised her overall grade by 2 points, when everything was averaged out)--she felt it was unfair that she didn't pass. I didn't even mention the fact that my syllabus clearly states that if a student must get a passing grade on four of six of the actual papers in order to pass: she got a passing grade on two of the six. I just pointed out that, mathematically, the marks she earned averaged out to well below a 59. But no, it's not fair, because she worked so hard. (And the evidence of that is...?)

Finally I ended the argument, as she didn't have anything to say except what I did wasn't fair. I told her that she was perfectly within her rights to talk to the chair of the department, who would listen very carefully to her case. He will: he's great about that. Not that he'll make me change the grade (or even suggest that I do--and not that I would even if he did). Then the mother came in to tell me that this is a community college, and I was being way too hard on her lovely, wonderful student of a daughter. Everyone they've shown the work to thinks I'm too hard: this isn't a university, after all, it's a community college. (I wonder if she has any idea how insulting that is to her daughter, the implication being that this young woman couldn't make it at a university, and that all she can succeed at is the second-rate, "easy" education of a community college.) She told me I wasn't helpful (which, of course, made me wish I had a video tape of all the times I bent over backward for this young woman, giving her extra chances, being understanding, being encouraging, offering help--which she never took me up on). But I didn't engage with her, and not just because I'm legally not allowed to: I also had no intention of playing the blame-defense game. I said, "I understand that you are disappointed, and that's all I can say." She left saying they'd be talking to the dean. Alrighty then, you go right ahead and do that.

I will be interested to see what, if any, blow-back I get from this. Nothing from Bruce, I expect: he may ask me to present my side of the story, just so he has the whole picture, but that would be it. If the dean contacts me about it, I'm armed for bear: I've got the girl's grade sheet and my syllabus, both of which are pretty inarguable.

The issue, of course, isn't that the grade isn't fair. It is fair. It is exactly and precisely what the young woman earned with the work that she produced (or, more to the point, didn't produce). The issue is that she doesn't like it. She doesn't like that she has to take the course again, that she feels she wasn't treated like the special human being she is--ultimately, that the grade says something about her as a human being that she does not want to believe about herself. And somehow I can't find it in me to feel very sorry about that.

Of course, I'm writing about this relatively rationally (albeit with a rich sauce of annoyance on top), but inside, I'm still quivering. I absolutely fucking hate having that kind of confrontation. I didn't lose it (though I was testier than I wanted to be at first)--I think I kept pretty calm and rational--but inside I get not only annoyed--angry--but also highly defensive: it feels very personal ("You are a bad teacher and a bad person"), and it's hard for me to let go of that and recognize that it isn't really about me at all. I'm in essence the messenger of a hard truth about how life in the real world works--and if this young woman continues to go through her life in this fashion, this is hardly the last time she'll get an unpleasant result.

Breathing, breathing. This too shall pass--and with very little, if any, long-term effect. So, breathing, breathing.

In my perpetual quest to find a positive note for myself at the end of each blog (not always possible, but I do try), I'd like to report that I believe I have the stories for the rest of the semester chosen for 263, and have them in an order that makes at least some sort of sense. I'll take a look again tomorrow, when my brains are a little more clear, and if I still think it all works, I'll type it up and be ready to give it to the students on Wednesday. Which would feel great.

And both classes went fine today. I liked my approach to the essay assignment (a little lectury, but the students responded well to that, most of them taking notes). In 101, the one student who had tried (via e-mail) the "I don't have the homework because I didn't buy the book" excuse didn't show up for class today (good thing, as I'd have tossed him). Everyone else was working well, digging in to the reading, working to make sense of it. In 263, I realized that I have to assign more reading: they're getting through the stories faster and more thoroughly than I anticipated, so I'm at a bit of a loss for what to do with them on Wednesday. I'll come up with something productive, I'm sure, helping them think about their first mini-papers, which are due a week from today, but precisely what or how, I haven't figured out yet.

But now, I'm going to run a few quick errands and take reading journals home with me. I'll try to get a few done tonight; if not, well, tomorrow is another day, don't you know.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two down

Another decent day, all going smoothly. I was particularly happy with the short story class. I did give them a tiny raft of shit about the fact that more than half of them had not checked their student e-mail, had not downloaded the reading journal form--and consequently had not, as I instructed, brought it to class with them. I told them I was disappointed, told them that if it were a 101 class, I'd have made everyone without the journal leave--a little muttering under the breath about that--but then I just put them in groups and had them start talking about the story, which everyone had read (or at least said they had, and from the conversation, I think that was true). There were a few students who were brand new to the class (and I regret to report but was curious to note, one of the new registrants did not show, so I'm going to have to figure out what to do about her next week, if she shows up at that point). But even the new students got into the spirit of the thing--and without my running the usual ice-breaker. I do want to do the ice-breaker with them on Monday--mostly because that's how I get to know all their names, but also because it does help them feel a sense of comradeship in the class.

However, as I said, they did great with the discussion, even without that ice-breaker. They had some really great questions, ideas, responses to the story (Ursula K. Le Guin's "Ile Forest")--the whole experience was generally very different from when I teach it in 102, and much more positive. Cool ideas coming up, like what's the difference between facts and truth, why do we forgive one person for a horrific act of violence and not another, what makes a person lovable.... Cool stuff. I'll be interested to see what they think of W. P. Kinsella's "Dance Me Outside," which they're reading for next week. It's a much more simplistic story in a lot of ways, certainly not as lyrically descriptive (and written in a very distinctive narrator's voice, that of a poorly educated kid living on an Indian reservation in Canada). I now rather wish I'd assigned a different Kinsella story, though the one I'm thinking of breaks my own heart to read: still, it's a little more mysterious in its effect. Ah well.

Today's 101 went fine. The students seem pretty lively, got into discussion well enough. I also loved that they felt sufficiently comfortable to tease me a little about what to call me: after the name game, in which I refer to myself as Tonia, they asked first if they should call me Professor Payne, then if they were allowed to call me Dr. Payne (this arising from the joke I always make during the first class, that it sounds like a wrestling name, and that some students have been known to spell it "Pain," which is even funnier). I said yes, they should call me Professor, and if it turns them on to call me Dr. Payne, then sure. I think they thought of the "turn on" in a more sexualized, sado-masochistic way than I intended (given the "Pain" joke), but they laughed, I laughed: all good. And some of the "bits" that I did with the classes yesterday, I did again, and they worked just fine (no lead balloons, thank god).

So.

I am deeply grateful not to have to teach tomorrow: my body's been a little out of whack since Sunday, and it will be nice to be able to lie about like a flounder for a day and still have the full complement of days away from campus before I have to gear up again. But I'm also grateful that we get to drop into the normal groove now, so I can start to learn the pattern of classes and rooms as part of my muscle memory as it were. And so we can get into the nitty-gritty of teaching and learning: I realize, yet again, that all my bitching aside, all the difficulties and challenges and despairs notwithstanding, I do love this profession, this process. How lucky I am to do something that matters to me as this does--and get paid for it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Second meeting

I find it interesting how different classes can be, even when I do essentially the exact same thing in each one. I know sections change over the semester--something I chatted about briefly this afternoon when I ran into a student from last year in between classes. The sections that start out seeming wonderful can go sour, and vice versa. Or not: sometimes a class that starts out with one complexion stays that way all semester long. But after two meetings, I can say that so far, my 1:00 T/Th class is not as "good" as the 4:00 T/Th class. The students are less responsive, less engaged, less lively. The 4:00 class is going well so far--quite well. I'm pleased. If things stay this way, it will be great to end each week on a positive note.

I do find that the sort of stumbling start to the semester has me a bit thrown, however: it's hard for me to keep in mind that today is Tuesday, that I won't see the students again until next week, that the students I see tomorrow I will see again before I see today's lot again.... I did my little ice-breaker/"I learn your names more quickly this way" thingy today--and then thought, "Well, it will be interesting to see if I remember any of this by the time I see these students next."

And further to the late registration foo-raw, I have a few new students on my rosters--one of whom didn't show up today. I'm on the fence about what to do if anyone shows up next week for the first time. Technically, any such student would only have two (out of an allowed three) absences. On the other hand, the student would have missed two full weeks--and a hell of a lot of work. Humph. I'll chew on it over the weekend and make a determination by Monday. And hope like mad it turns out to be a moot point.

I'm much too tired and cranky right now to do anything remotely productive (reread the story the students will be working on in tomorrow's short-story class, read any other stories trying to nail down the rest of the assignments for that class, any number of useful things I might do). Instead, I'll have a little dinner here in the office and noodle around until it's time to go to dance class. Won't stay for both probably, just the first class, then home and I hope early to bed. My body--including the brain--would certainly benefit from additional sleep.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Week 1: finis

All's well in the land of the new semester. I've met all my classes now and most of the students, with the exception of a few absentees. In every section, there is a reasonable critical mass of students who are eager, already working hard to be good and do things right. It was nice to end my teaching week with a comment from the last student out the door today: "I'm glad I chose your section." This was from a slightly older student; she seems very sharp, on the ball, so even though I'm not quite sure what gave her that feeling, I'm glad she had it.

But god alone knows what I've forgotten to go over, what little bits will come back to bite me in the ass. I need to remember (hah!) to reinforce with the students in my Monday/Wednesday classes that I only went over some of the highlights about the attendance policy, late paper policy--and that (as I made very clear today) it is the students' responsibility to know the policies in detail, even the bits I forgot to go over. One student in the later of today's classes was reading the syllabus carefully and asking questions to be sure he understood--which made me aware of how much I'd forgotten to clarify with all the other sections. Shit. But his asking I take as a good sign.

Interesting thing: in today's 101s (can't remember if I did it yesterday), I stated that we're reading essays, not stories--and I asked students what the difference was. Lots and lots of interesting guesses. I don't want to get into the whole complicated definition of "story" (actually a pretty loose term); mostly I just get annoyed that they routinely refer to anything they read as a story. After letting them guess for a while, I finally just told them: essay is nonfiction; story (at least as the term is generally used in the literature field) is fiction. That's obviously not always and exclusively true, and the boundaries are more blurry than that, but if I can just get them to refer to the works we read as essays, not stories, I'll be happy.

I was frustrated today by the fact that I couldn't turn my attention entirely to the book review--or at least for not long enough: I got into the office, started revising, and was just getting a good head of steam going when I had to stop and go to a committee meeting, followed immediately by my first class of the day. I know myself well enough to know that the break between classes was not long enough to get the revision rolling again: I need a long runway to get airborne on that kind of work. And now, of course, although I'm on a bit of a "post-teaching" high, my brains are about ready to shut down for the night, I won't get back to finishing off that review until tomorrow. But I've got tomorrow, thank god, without interruption (and hopefully without the hurricane causing any power outages), so I can crank it out and then dust off my hands and get ready for the next thing.

Which is class stuff. I have to pull together the first review sheet for the 101 classes (I'll e-mail it to them), but I'm mostly focusing on the short story class. Between classes today, I read more in the anthology: a couple of dynamite stories (one of which is horrifically grim but incredibly well written)--but I'm not sure how to frame them. I'm beginning to wonder if I should let go of my desire to pre-frame the stories according to themes and instead let the students uncover whatever connections they can find. Or not even make any connections but just dive as deeply into a story as possible (though generally, comparison/contrast work is easier for them). Theme, after all, is not the be-all and end-all of literary analysis, and it is an incredibly difficult concept for students to grasp in any event. Of course, that's part of why I want to hammer away at it, to help them "get" it better. And I do worry about the students coming up with anything significant to say if I just turn them loose, without some kind of frame to help them. Hum, hum, hum.

I reckon I'll simply keep reading, noting which stories do something interesting as far as I'm concerned, and hope that some kind of frame begins to become apparent to me.

And as I read, I am interested to note how frequently death is an important element in stories, one way or another. Facing someone else's death, facing one's own.... I don't want to depress the bejesus out of the students, but truly, some fascinating stories lie down that path.

I'll see where the reading takes me over the weekend. Meanwhile, mercifully, the temperature is starting to drop as the hurricane comes closer, so working at home tomorrow without A/C won't be painful--and my brains will have at least a fighting chance of working at something close to peak ability. And, I hope, will do so without any further infusions of chocolate. I'm not holding my breath on that, however.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

So far, so good. In both classes, I had to ask students who arrived a little late to go scrounge desks from other rooms. After today, I'll try to get there a little earlier myself, count seats, and drag in desks if I have to so we don't have to fuss with that at the start of each class period.

The short-story class felt great. For one thing, whoever had been in the room before had left the desks in a circle: cool, roll with it. It made things feel loose and comfortable starting out. I think they already have a sense that they're going to be doing some thinking in my class: I hope so. There are two senior observers, as well. One of them was charming: after class, she wanted to talk to me at length about how much she has always loved English (despite being a math/science teacher), about reading, about an influential high-school English teacher she had. Quite lovely.

Funny, I mentioned the other day that I had a good plan for how to start off the first class for 101--and, of course, once I was in the room, that went completely out of my head. It still felt relatively comfortable, however. Students seemed a little shell-shocked, though I did get a few of them to smile, even chuckle at a couple of my attempts at humor. Nice when that happens.

I felt good about my general approach and demeanor, too: I let the short-story students know that I'm notoriously tough, that I grade hard--but that I will also work hard to help anyone who comes to me for help--all in a very cheerful, friendly, relaxed way. I kinda forgot to convey that as clearly to the 101 class: I hope I remember to say something about it next time we meet, even though we'll be launched into the semester by then (first reading due, so something to discuss...). I also didn't get a chance to run the time management exercise with them that I was planning. If I get to it next week, fine. If not, ah well.

And tomorrow is another day (an odd expression, when one stops to think about it. Like, well, duh). Who knows what I will remember--or forget--to do or say with them. And I have my first committee meeting tomorrow, which I think is madness, but the chair was having a hell of a hard time finding dates that didn't conflict with ten thousand other things. Well, whatever. I'm just a member of that committee, and have no intention of doing much more than my bump on a log impressions. I'm pretty much in that head-space regarding all the committees I'm on: I'll go (most of the time); I'll listen; I'll contribute to the discussion if I have something pertinent to say or if I think an issue needs clarification (I'm pretty good at asking for the metaphoric cut to the chase); I don't intend to get on any subcommittees or to do any work of any substance. This semester, I want to do a good job teaching my classes, do enough committee work to show that I'm still active (thinking ahead to future promotions)--and put the bulk of my energy into my life outside of school, which is rich, rewarding, and has been changing rapidly in the last six months. Those changes need to be honored: the job can take a back seat for a change.

Though I say that and at the same time, a little hamster is running on the squeaky wheel in my head: "Oh, yeah, and I have to do the first review sheet for the 101 classes, and remind them to check their e-mail for it, and when do you suppose I'm going to do that? And then I need to ... and I need to ... and I need to ..." The ever-growing "to do" list.

Plus, I admit with a blush, that I just asked for an extension on that book review I've been talking about. I know I've already been given one extension, and they may not be able to allow me any more time, but I can't imagine 48 hours will really make or break their issue--and if it will, then they'll just have to go ahead without me, and I'll hope that my review makes the next issue. I drafted the review yesterday, have done some more work on it today, but it needs further revision, not to mention polishing. No matter what the answer is about the request for an extension, one thing I'm particularly enjoying about writing the review is that I can use it as a teaching tool: "Look, this is what my process was. See how I did this? See the ways I reworked, rethought--even the ways I just kept writing, despite the fact that I knew something was kinda crappy?" So as I revise, I'm doing a lot more than I normally would to make my process visible (not erasing, for instance, but crossing out, as I add/rework sentences in what I typed up). We'll see how it works.

Ah, my mantra again: We'll see. But now, here's to successful navigation of the first day--and the switch from anticipation to just dropping into the groove and hitting "play."