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Student Readers: A Warning

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

Hi! And you are...?

My readership has suddenly blossomed, which is a lovely development--but I don't know who is reading the blog, how you found it, and why you find it interesting. I'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to use the "comment" box at the end of any particular post to let me know what brought you to this page--and what keeps you coming back for more (if you do).

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

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Communications may be sporadic

Not only am I awash in assignments to mark, but I'm about to have company for three weeks, so whatever time I spend not actively working, I'm unlikely to be blogging. Or at least not as regularly as is my wont.

I'm taking a moment to breathe here. I'm marking revisions and had a vague memory that maybe a student had submitted her works-cited page separately from her paper (late, as if it were some completely different assignment). Because I take ten points off for any missing required element (works cited page, use of specific additional sources, that sort of thing), I didn't want her to suffer a whopping penalty for something she had, in fact, done. Digging through the homework stack for her class, I came across the homework I give students in which they need to ask any questions they have about a forthcoming paper assignment, so they are sure (and I am sure) they know what they need to do. Of course the one that stood out of the stack was the one by Mr. Contempt. And quelle surprise: it reeks of contempt. He didn't talk about the assignment except to say that he would probably be able to write better on other topics, that school isn't supposed to teach students to be passive but is supposed to allow them to think about the big philosophical questions of life, and to read the work of great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, blah blah blah.

Instantly I felt sick, literally nauseated. So, I'm breathing past that and working out how I will approach him--because this cannot go on. At the moment, I don't think I will explain my pedagogy to him, though I may offer to, if he specifies that he's genuinely interested in knowing. I will, however, tell him that he should withdraw: he's on the verge of failing anyway, and since he clearly does not like my approach, he should take the class again with a professor he finds more congenial to his elevated intellect. I think I can do that without losing my cool--and I fucking, flat-out refuse to loose my cool with him, as it is so clearly what he wants. Ed pointed out the fact that this kid has skillfully managed to manipulate the interaction between us so he can say he failed the class because he disagreed with me, not because his writing or thinking are inadequate.

I confess, I'm half tempted to say to him, "OK, you pick your own topic. Write about anything that requires reading a nonfiction, persuasive essay and doing research into factual ideas related to that essay. Let's see how brilliant your writing is then." But no. My job is to teach students to write well about ANYTHING, not just the topics that they like. Frustration and boredom are facts of life, kiddiwinkles, and as grown-ups we simply learn to gut through. So keep your contempt to yourself and suck it up and learn to actually write. All I can hope is, whether he withdraws or sticks it out to the end (and very likely fails), that his next English professor is every bit as demanding and rigorous as I am.


Oh, argh, this is just getting more heated up, not less. Meanwhile, I have the door open, because it's my office hour, and down the hall a colleague is (again) showing a movie--I think more of Bonnie and Clyde--so I'm listening to shouting and gunfire and carnage of the filmic variety. Not exactly a soundtrack to soothe the savage breast (or irritated professor). Ah well. I may just plug in my headphones and put something fun up on the iPod. And snack. Snacking is always good.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Almost done

I'm on a little break between classes, office hour technically, though I'm not expecting anyone. I have one more library class to attend with the students, and then I want to pack my little bags and get away from here as fast as I can for a little decompression before the grind of the weekend to come.

In the library class that I just went to with the students, it was interesting to notice that Mr. Contempt was working diligently, doing research, taking copious notes on what he was finding. I think he's getting off on the possibility of finding information to prove that I'm full of shit. As long as he's engaged, that's OK by me. Parenthetical note: I didn't get any homework from him again today. I may end up re-doing the early warning for his section so I can let him know that not only is he missing reading journals (he's actually missing five of six, not four of five), his revised paper failed and he's missing most of his other homework, too. I have to say that I am hoping--probably against hope--that he'll withdraw prior to turning in his next paper. I do not relish the thought of reading whatever bilge he ends up writing. Ah well.

These library sessions are going well: the students get the overview that they need, but mostly, they then get the hands-on experience of doing the research and finding out what the snags are. In fact, by the end of each class, some of them feel they're already done with their research, that they've found exactly what they need for their papers. If that turns out to be true, I'm thrilled: it means that they won't be in a flat-out panic the night before, unable to find (or access) the sources they need.

I want to remember this and incorporate a library day into my 102s, and all future 101s. Part of the reason to use the library and librarians, rather than doing my own little dog-and-pony, which I used to do in the classroom, is that in the library, the students all have computers they can use, so it's not abstract; it's "active learning." But another important reason is that being in an alternative environment does something in their brains: they think and behave differently when they are in a different room.

Paul and I were talking about that in terms of conferencing. He does little five-minute conferences at one stage and then the longer 20-minute conferences at a later point. Because I get most of my best ideas from Paul, I'm now thinking that I'll do something similar, but in reverse: I'll do 20-minute conferences between versions of their first papers, as I do now, but then I will schedule a round of five-minute conferences between versions of their second papers. The individualized attention is one specific benefit to conferencing, but another is that meeting them outside the classroom provides some sort of shock to their systems, so they think more seriously and in greater depth, just because they are not in an environment in which they are accustomed to being able to slide, to let others pick up the slack. There is also merit to the privacy factor: conferencing in the classroom during class time, other students are around, and that can inhibit a student from fully expressing a concern or question. Just the student and me, it's easier.

Thinking, thinking, always thinking, always trying to find the perfect assignment, the perfect approach, so the veils of ignorance fall from their eyes and they can see cosmic truth and express it in elegant and precise ways.

Funny thing, as I sit here blogging--which I usually do at the end of the day, not when I still have one more class to teach--I feel the exhaustion factor kicking in. The last several weeks I've been developing various eye twitches: I used to get them in grad school, and my ex had the same problem (and was told by the doctor that completing the degree would be the cure). In addition, tomorrow the chiropractor will get to do another one of those neck adjustments on me that sounds like a string of firecrackers going off (my neck is better than last week but still not quite lined up properly). I am deeply tired, so I'm fighting the part of my psyche that says lots of greasy and/or chocolaty food would surely help. Once my next class ends, at 5:15, I intend to come back to the office just long enough to pack up everything I need to grade over the weekend (not forgetting the "bozo error" stamp), grab my bag and go. I don't expect to get any school work done tomorrow: that will be a day devoted to life maintenance (including a riding lesson, which I consider crucial to my sanity, not to mention useful for my physical health). Saturday, I hope to nail myself to the living-room table and begin cranking in earnest on the 101 revisions. And we'll see how that goes.

I know Ed will applaud this news: the call went out for placement readers, and although initially I said "no," under some pleading from the placement coordinator (Cathy, who is a friend), I changed my mind and agreed to take on some sessions. Then Cathy informed me that I would also have to attend not one but two norming sessions--and my system went into panic mode. I very pathetically asked her if she really, really needed me, told her I was feeling sick with the stress of the thought (true, but a naked plea for rescue), and she immediately said I shouldn't do it, should see if next semester feels more possible. So, I was off that hook, briefly on it, and am now off again. And it is remarkable how much better that feels, just to have gotten out of that one little thing.

Big, deep sigh.

I love Thursday afternoons, when I know I'm heading into my day of rest. I don't usually blog over the weekend, but if something interesting comes up in the paper marking, I'll fill you in, my lovely readers.

As I close, let me just share with you the earth-shattering thesis from a student in the short story class: "The short stories 'Heat' and 'Old Woman Magoun' are very different in a number of ways." Omigod, REALLY?? I can't believe that two stories are different! Do the authors know??

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I want to make another relatively early night of it tonight, but I feel compelled to discuss a problem student and an interaction yesterday that I don't feel I handled very well. In a 101 class, there is a student--not Mr. Macho, another young man with a similar hostility problem. I think this young man is relatively intelligent, but since he showed up (he entered the class late), the contempt he feels for me and for the class as a whole has been building. It's gotten to the point where it's practically visibly leaking out his pores in technicolor. I've tried to treat him as if he is simply struggling to write well and to handle the material, but yesterday, he arguing with me about whether students should be able include their "opinions" in their papers. Oh, it's a long story, that I won't go into, but essentially what I came down to was that they do not need to agree with the readings I assigned, but if they disagree, as they do their research, they need to find specific evidence for the counter-argument. And I said, that honestly, I have a bias--and know a lot about this stuff--so if they do want to make a counter-argument, it will have to be particularly good. It can still get a great grade, but it will have to be extremely well done. At one point, before I got to that point, he said, "You're just teaching us to be passive and not think." I said, "No, I'm teaching you to find reasons for what you think, to evaluate an argument objectively and thoroughly."

I wish I'd started where I ended, as I confess, at first I began by saying that yes, I want them to agree with the essays I assigned. But that's not really true. It's just that they can't disagree because they disagree: they need to back that disagreement up with something--and even then, in their papers, I do not want them to say "I disagree"--because, honestly, who gives a fuck whether they do or don't? If they want to make the counter-argument, then they need to set up both sides of the debate and prove (or try to prove) why the side they agree with has more merit.

I made that point better today in the library lesson--which went pretty well, I think. The students were a little disengaged (until we turned them loose to research on their own)--but during the lesson, the librarian found an article stating that organic farming increases the carbon footprint and environmental problems of farming, in comparison to industrial farming. I hadn't talked to today's students about counter-arguments, so I jumped in to clarify: if they find material that puts forth a counter argument, they can't ignore it. They need to acknowledge it--they can even end up believing that it's the stronger argument. But again, they need to prove why.

I'm tired and cranky and I may not be making a lot of sense here, but I struggle with this: I want them to think, God dammit, and I want them to have solid reasons for their opinions, but as soon as we get into "it's my opinion," they stop applying any intellectual rigor, because, you know, "we're all entitled to our opinion." Yes, we are--but not all opinions are created equal, and the ones that are based on bugger all are worth precisely that.

That contemptuous student baffles me. I just did the "early warning" thing, letting students who are in trouble know their grades are already in jeopardy, and I saw that of five reading journals, he's submitted one. If he's not even doing the reading, he can't possibly know whether he agrees with the points that are being made: he's operating on knee-jerk (emphasis on "jerk") assumptions. And I just glanced at his revision, which very clearly was his way of telling me that he doesn't give a shit about the assignment. (It's half the required length, as was the first version, and the first of my comments that he thought was helpful was about double-spacing. Yeah, OK.) So, if he hates my approach to teaching, hates the focus of the class, and isn't willing to do the work well enough to pass, why the hell is he hanging around making both of us miserable? Why doesn't he just withdraw and put his energy into some other class where he's got a shot?

I'm not sure how I'm going to handle him. I know for certain that I'm going to get through to him in any way--and he's starting to poison the class a bit, which I won't allow to continue. But I'll have to see how things progress from here before I decide what to do.

By the way, the young woman to whom I gave the extra chance in the short story class was not there on Monday, as I think I mentioned, but she did show up today--late. I should have told her no, that she'd blown her last chance and had to withdraw--and I'm not sure why I'm allowing her to make the attempt even at an incomplete. But she knows she's at her third strike. I do not have much faith she'll pull it out: I'm pretty certain she'll screw up again and that third strike will take her out. I don't know whether it's beneficial to her to give her the extra chance or not, but I guess I simply didn't want to fight--and I actually do want her to succeed, and will be thrilled if my prognostication proves incorrect.

Meanwhile, I have one more paper to finish for the short-story class (of their "big" essays), and I simply cannot bring myself to finish it tonight. The stack of stuff to be marked is approaching the absurd. I may bail on tomorrow's department meeting: bad form, I know, for the new evening assistant chairperson, but Bruce can scold me and I'll try to be a better girl next semester, and meanwhile, it would buy me a little extra time to chip away at stuff. If I can get a few discrete chunks of stuff polished off, I'll feel a lot less anxious, which in turn will make me more productive. Ironic that often, the more I push, the less I actually manage to do. And really, all I can do is take each day as it comes and see what I can accomplish. That's all any of us can do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I hate decisions

But the decision I've made is to forgo a lengthy blog tonight, grade a few more papers, go to one dance class (I haven't been in six weeks and will miss the next two--and it feels like something that will make me feel good), try to get to bed before midnight, and get up early to tackle the rest of the papers in the morning. There is a chance--faint, but a chance--that I'll get the papers back to the short story class if I follow this plan, so, off I go.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Genuine displacement activity

A friend of mine prefers not to discuss procrastination. It isn't procrastination, she says; it's "displacement activity"--and I've just engaged in quite a bit of it. And truly, what I've been doing needs to be done, and needs to be done now, but perhaps not as "now" now as the assignments I haven't been marking. For instance, I realized that my short-story students are about to write a paper for which I said I would supply the critical essays--and I haven't supplied any critical essays. So I found a bunch and typed up a little annotated bibliography so the students can pick and choose (so I don't have to copy unnecessarily). In the process, I got to thinking about the timing of that assignment and realized I was out of my mind when I picked the due date. It made sense in terms of giving them time between that paper and their final paper proposals; it makes no sense in terms of my grading load. So they'll be thrilled to their teeny tootsies that they get a pretty good-sized wodge of extra time for that one.

I'm also going to cancel a reading for the 101 classes (which I determined last night but which I forgot to announce today--but no harm, no foul, as the assignment I'm changing around isn't for a few weeks yet). I find I'm having to make notes for myself on sticky flags to adhere to the attendance cards: that way I have to see the note, and won't forget.

Clearly I have a serious case of the "brain already full" syndrome: random bits of necessary information are getting buried in the metaphoric garbage, stuck to the back of something I don't think I'm going to need (mentally, metaphorically speaking). My mind is beginning to resemble the recyling bin, which I'm terrified to empty, for fear I've inadvertently tossed something crucial in there.

In terms of student interactions, each class, one withdrawal. Neither a student it hurts to lose. The young woman I was going to allow back in the short-story class despite her excessive absences didn't show up today. I think she was scared off by the fact that I told her to come to class today prepared, with the story read, reading journal done, and mini-paper in hand if possible. Ah well. I gave it a shot; it didn't pan out.

On the other hand, I did have a nice moment with a student at the end of the short story class. I don't remember if I mentioned last week that he had asked (rightly) if he could get his other assignments back before the next were due so he could see if he's made improvements. I left the assignments for him--and he did pick them up (surprising how often a student makes such a request and then doesn't follow through--or perhaps it isn't surprising). After class today, he asked me about one comment he kept seeing on his papers, showed me what he'd done to try to make the correction. He still hadn't done it quite right, but he gets it now--and I praised him to the sky for his work to improve. My praise was, is, entirely sincere. He knows he's not a great writer, but he's willing to do what it takes to become a better one, and that, my friends, is what makes a good student. He may not get the best grades, but man, I'll take classrooms full of students like him. He cares; he's trying; he wants to improve. That warrants praise.

I also had an interesting little moment with Mr. Macho: he had found a quotation in the essay we read for today that he thought was important but couldn't figure out. He and I talked about it, and he didn't seem frustrated or angry at the suggestion that he try to work his way through it, using his group mates for help--in fact, he anticipated that was what I was going to suggest. Then he was very open asking about it in class; I think he may have been the first to volunteer a question, in fact. The other students laughed when he said, "I think it's important but I don't know what it means"--but I pointed out that lots of them have that reaction, and it's a good step in the right direction. He asked, "Am I right? Is it important?" "Absolutely, yes." I was happy to be able to give him some positive reinforcement.

I find this young man fascinating. I'm trying to figure him out, get a read on him. He still comes across as resistant, in terms of his body language, but he seems to relax and get more serious about doing the work with every class. And yet, I can't help but wonder if there is some simmering resentment that will suddenly cause him to act out in some way. I guess I find it hard to believe he's really turned the corner as completely as it seems he may have. But future classes--and future writings--will reveal a lot.

I am getting pretty pissy, however, with students who still insist on resistance to the material. In a journal, one student wrote, "Although the information following the quote is mostly nonsense to me as part of the audience, other nature lovers might find it ideal." First, just for a little context, the essay is not about loving nature: it's about ways we can create urban and suburban environments that can bring us more enjoyment. More to the point, however, I am simply fed to the teeth with that "I don't have to try to understand this because it's stupid and I can't relate" attitude. My response: "Well, clearly you are fully engaged in trying to understand an unusual point of view, one that might challenge or stretch your mindset." Once upon a time I might have whited that out and tried for something more Socratic and questioning, but fuck it. (Once upon a time I'd also have been more concerned about clear and felicitous presentation of my ideas: "Is 'mindset' really the word I want? Is the point of view really 'unusual'? What do I mean by that?" Fuck that, too.) If he's going to behave like a truculent, arrogant ignoramus, I get to behave like a snarky, belligerent bitch (and I'm not going to edit myself for his benefit).

Ok, ok, ok. Cleansing breath.

I want to get the reading journals back to the 101 students tomorrow, and I truly am ready to start grading the big papers for the short story class. I returned a bunch of journals and mini-papers to them today--and collected another journal and mini-paper (sweet jumping Jaysus, it's endless). So the stack for that class has gone down, though it has not gone away. I am looking at 19 papers for them (several hardly qualify as papers: they're really just place holders, so the student has turned in something and can "revise"--I use the term in the sense of "actually write the paper"). It's lunacy to think I'll get them done by Wednesday, but I want to take a good run at it--mostly so I can get to the damned revisions for the 101 classes. Those students really do need their revisions back, and soon, as their next papers are coming up.

And I'd push a little further tonight, but, um, no, I won't. I'm hungry, and tired, and I can tell that my immune system is taking a hammering, so I'm going to go home, get to bed early, and leap to work tomorrow. You all know by now what Scarlett says.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

See, this is why...

Those of us who love teaching on the good days love days like today. Both my classes flew just fine: no sudden losses of altitude, no turbulence, no crash landings. In the short story class we were talking about Leslie Marmon Silko's "Yellow Woman" (another story about a woman enjoying an illicit sexual liaison with no guilt). The students had read it with no set-up from me, but before I put them into groups, I gave them a little of the knowledge I gleaned from a quick read through a few critical sources I scrounged up the other day (very quick and dirty research but sufficient). The set-up was enough: every group was getting into it, even getting into excited debate about interpretations. Class ended early again: this seems to be a pattern with the lit classes. Once they have stopped coming up with questions and comments, I figure we're done; I don't have to talk to them about writing, as I would in a comp section, and I don't feel compelled to shove any more interpretation on them from my perspective. I did talk to them a little about the comparison between Chopin's "The Storm" and the Silko story--and one student came up to me after class to ask about the focus for her next mini-paper, picking up on what I'd said. Her idea seems on the money, and with luck she will express it well in her paper. As a happy side note, that same student has not contributed to class discussion prior to today (or if she has, it's been so small a contribution that I didn't notice it), but today she was participating with confidence and intelligence. It's always great to hear from students other than the usual suspects.

And today's 101 went even better--rather to my amazement. I started out by giving a brief overview of their next paper assignment, and I think they were stupefied with anguish at the thought of having to write another paper. Certainly they were silent and unresponsive. I did ask them if they'd remembered to bring not only their books but their brains with them: I'd have gotten a similar reaction if I'd asked a room full of flounder. But, but but! I put them in groups to discuss the essay, gave them a task to follow their discussion from their reading journals (their first time with the new, better form: I think I made a very good decision to switch, as they seem to be getting significantly more out of the texts). And after a little taxi down the runway to gather speed, the energy in the room took off. The groups were working well together and they were genuinely engaged in figuring out the material productively. Again, some debate over interpretation going on, in more than one group.

In one group in which a lively debate was going on, the two debaters (listened to carefully by their more quiet group mates) were going at it, and I overheard the young woman say, "You're not listening to my point!" The young man said he was, that she wasn't listening to his. She said, "But I agree with part of what you said! You're so busy trying to make your point that you aren't hearing what I'm saying!" It was rich and wonderful to see them wrestle not only with the issues under debate but also with how debate is supposed to take place. Very cool.

Just by luck of the draw, Mr. Macho ended up in a group of all young men, two of whom are among the brightest students I have this semester, across the board. Those two had worked together before on their papers, so they already know the level on which they can talk with each other, so they dove in. The fourth member of their group is more quiet but he's solid, and he would insert his own apt remark or observation from time to time, when he could get a word in edgewise. Mr. Macho started the period in his usual arms-crossed, "I refuse" pose, but soon I noticed that not only had he unfolded physically, he was bringing points into the discussion, referring to his book, engaging in the debate. Hah! I thought. Ah-hah! Gotcha! He's still resisting me madly (Mommy issues, no doubt): he wanted to argue about a point at the end of class, but I kept agreeing with him--and then shifting the ground of the argument, as he was trying to argue something that was irrelevant to the main issue. It must have driven him somewhat bats that I wasn't taking the bait and fighting with him. (Ahhh-HAH!)

All in all, I'll be most interested to see where our conversation goes when we discuss the essay I've assigned for next week. It's more difficult, longer--and we only have one day in which to go over it, as the other day we'll be having our library lesson on research. I'm going to have to set up a very specific task to help them focus on the key points--and I feel more than a trifle annoyed with myself for not allowing more time for this particular reading. (OK, I admit it: I wasn't thinking about how the library lesson day would impact our discussion time.) I'll take a look at the syllabus and see if I can squeeze another discussion day in somewhere--but it's unlikely I'll find one, because the next assignment is three essays by Michael Pollan: another mistake, as they're all wonderful, and not long, but the arguments are quite dense and deserve more class time. Ah well. This is what happens: I try on something new, and it works or doesn't, and I then make adjustments the next time around. In this case, that'll be next fall.

Two other items of note: we finally got our spring schedules. The scheduling committee initially put them together in May, for fuck's sake, but Bruce and Allen (designated faculty assistant) then had to do whatever voodoo is required to avoid potential problems, reallocate courses originally given to people who will be on sabbatical or who are retiring, and god knows what. Mine is, I think, exactly what I picked, but I realize, looking at it again now, it is an odd schedule, some days very long and loose, others shorter but jammed tight--and one day, Wednesdays, when I have one class, at 12:30, and not another damned thing, unless I schedule an office hour. Weird. But I'll be teaching Nature in Lit--assuming I can get it to run. It didn't run last spring (as you may recall: that's how I got the poetry class at the 11th hour), but I'm going to put up flyers for it soon. I won't be able to haunt advisement, as I've done in the past (I'll be out of town when advisement begins, and then busy as hell once I'm back), but fingers and toes crossed. One year I ran an "ad" in the campus newspaper: I may see if I can do that again. Man, I want that puppy to run!

The other item of note has to do with why I'll be so busy when I'm back in January, prior to the start of classes. I have accepted Bruce's appointment of me as evening assistant chair of the department. I'm still a lowly associate professor, so this isn't a promotion, but it is a "major leadership position" (highly desirable in terms of promotion, when it's time for me to go up for full)--which means I can cut back even further with my committee work (hooray). And although I don't get any classes off for it (no "reassigned time"), I get a healthy boost to my pay--financially the equivalent of being made full professor.

My duties, as I understand them, consist largely of helping Bruce put together the schedule of courses for the evenings and weekends--and then helping him schedule the faculty for them, mostly adjuncts but also full-timers who pick up additional courses on an adjunct basis. I will have to be available some evenings, in case either adjuncts or students who cannot get to the office during the day have problems--and I will, on occasion, have to conduct an observation (either of a new adjunct or of someone who may be a problem), though I think I get a little extra pay for that, on top of the other boost. There may be other assorted tasks: I need to talk to the colleague who currently holds the position. (She's retiring in December, which is why the post became vacant.) It doesn't sound onerous, much of it sounds interesting (I have a weird enjoyment of the jigsaw puzzle that is scheduling), and the payoff seems well worth it.

So, hooray for me!

Now, however, I need to crawl home (I did something unfortunate to my neck this morning in the shower, can hardly turn my head), eat something (perhaps lighter and less scary than last night's brontosaurus rib), and try to get to bed early. Tomorrow I'm subbing a class at 10, so it's another early alarm day--but the on-campus part of my work week is very nearly over. I'll be marking student assignments all weekend again: c'est la vie.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Blogging is more fun

The short-story class was a trifle painful today. Every time I tell students that they need to do the reading for a class but don't have to turn in their reading journals until a later date, they don't do the reading; they get locked into the idea that the journal and the reading are necessarily synchronous. But I was prepared for that: instead of group discussion, we did a "read around" of the story. It is short (Kate Chopin's "The Storm"), so we got the whole story read with plenty of time left over for discussion. But the discussion rather fizzled than zoomed. My theory is that the students didn't pay very close attention for a number of reasons (because they were more concerned with what part they would have to read, because their auditory processing is not terrific so they don't hear with the same attention they can exert if they read correctly, because they were not writing anything down). Even so, we got some interesting discussion out of it (and I want to do a little critical research on the story myself, see what I can find), but even though class ends officially at 12:15, by 11:50 they were obviously out of steam, out of ideas, nearly aphasic. Bye-bye, see you Wednesday, ready to talk about the next story.

I also think they were a little boggled by the fact that we were frankly discussing a woman discovering sexual fulfillment outside her marriage--and not feeling the least bit guilty about it. The story contains references to her white breasts, and her lover finding them with his lips; the suggestions of his orgasm (and hers) and their post-coital languor are not precisely subtle. They may also have had a little bit of a head-spin when they understood that the senior observers were unabashed about talking about sexual fulfillment ("little old ladies" aren't supposed to know about that stuff). The next story--Leslie Marmon Silko's "Yellow Woman"--is also about a woman being sexually impelled into an "inappropriate" relationship. I'll be curious to see where the students go with this theme.

On a bit of a side note, one of the students in that class seems to look for shady motives and imputations, for reasons to interpret behaviors as negative in some way (selfish, manipulative, greedy...). I wonder where that's coming from. I have a sense--based on nothing I can identify--that it comes from some kind of literary training she's had in the past: that someone has taught her to look for the dark underbelly in all literature, all characters. However, I realize it's equally possible the tendency to suspicion arises from something in her own personality or history. It does seem odd, though.

Today's 101 was a better experience than the short-story class for a change. I gave students some tasks to do on their revisions, working in pairs--and they were quite diligent in doing what I'd set out. Mr. Macho (the one who was so angry at first in his conference until he appeared to be fighting tears) asked me a million questions with a sense of desperation--and lingering frustration with a dash or two of hostility--but I cheerfully helped him as much as I could, not going out of my way for him but not brushing him off. (He apologized at one point, said he was incredibly tired--and I know all too well how stupid one can feel when exhausted, so I understood that some of his apparent recalcitrance was actually an inability to process in his present state.) Another student who has managed to misread (i.e., not read fully or carefully) every instruction I've provided was asking about the new reading journal form. I asked him (cheerfully) if he'd read the instructions, and although he didn't say he hadn't, he sheepishly said he'd read them again. I encouraged that, and encouraged him to make notes so he could ask me specific questions. Turns out, once he read the instructions carefully, he actually had some pretty good questions. As the Germans would say, also gut.

And I feel pretty good about how I set up the reading for them. We went over the first three paragraphs of Sarah Rabkin's "Coming Around the Bend" (a great little essay, available to be read at I read the first paragraph aloud, and then we went over all the assumptions the author makes about her audience's knowledge: these students have never heard of John Muir, don't understand the references to California's Coastal Range, Central Valley, or the Sierra Nevadas. The third paragraph doesn't seem to connect to the first two: we didn't get into that much, but I at least pointed it out and asked them to start to look for the connections--and I hope on Wednesday we can dig into it further. I'm thinking how I can set up some focused tasks for the groups to do, beyond going over the questions and comments from their reading journals. I'm giving more time to this essay than I usually do--in part because it's one of the bases for future paper topics. Short as it is, it is complex, and addresses some relatively deep philosophical ideas that I want the students to have a real shot at.

I also spent a portion of today readying the next paper assignment for the 101s. I kept having anxiety attacks about it over the weekend, because I kept "forgetting" I had to do it, and realizing I had to do it soon. Not only do I want students to start thinking about it, working on it, in the immediate future, I also needed to send it to the librarian who will be teaching the research sessions for the classes in a few weeks. (At least I think she'll be the one doing the teaching: I hope so. She'd be great--but she has colleagues who are not.)

All of this, of course, is not getting the stack of short-story reading journals and mini-papers graded--and today I collected their first major papers (not to mention the fact that the revisions from the 101s are coming in now: those are less demanding than first versions but still need to be read, evaluated, and marked, albeit lightly). The sad thing is, I think I have to do a plagiarism check on a handful of the mini-papers, never mind the big ones. Shit.

But I find I'm still in recovery mode from last week: my energy is low (not to mention my enthusiasm), so it's hard to face any assignments at all, even the relatively undemanding journals and minis. I am hoping that an early evening tonight--my office hour is over at 4:45, and I can depart immediately for home--will provide the needed restorative for a much more productive day tomorrow.

And tomorrow night is a steak night with Paul and Llynne: blissful hedonism. Plus I've already told students I'm making no promises about when they'll get stuff back. I have meetings Tuesday and Thursday this week (I'm getting spoiled: that seems like a lot, whereas it used to be a rare week when I didn't have meetings both days). Still, I think I'll be getting enough done in the moments in between whatever that I won't face next week in a flat-out panic. Or maybe I hope, rather than think....

Hope. It's a good thing.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Seems sunny to me...

The sun is almost down--but metaphorically, the sun came out for me at about 1:00 this afternoon and is still shining bright. All the essays got graded; all the conferences have taken place; I've tidied up the worst of the mess on my desk--God's in its heaven and all's right with the world.

I also didn't realize until I talked with Ed last night that, the grind of grading aside, I actually had a very good week: I had some truly lovely interactions with students. It is a magnificent feeling when a student comes in, bewildered and miserable over the horrific grade on the first paper, and through the conference, the light goes on in the student's eyes, that exciting "ah hah!" experience for them. I've also seen more of their personalities in these conferences than I have all semester (one of the reasons I love doing this: many of them can open up with me here in the office in a way they don't feel comfortable doing in class). We've been able to laugh, to joke around, to enjoy looking at the ideas.

There was the student who came in resistant and angry (evidenced by body language; he was civil but very shut down and tight lipped): as I talked to him about his frustration with reading, I saw that what had been anger turned into the shut down of refusing to cry. His anger had been met with understanding and compassion; I'm not sure he knew what to do with that, but I hope he can take the advice I gave him to heart. Then there were the two students who hadn't turned in their papers but who turned up for their conferences anyway, being adults about the fact that they had screwed up but also wanting to do their damnedest to continue in the class. And there was the student from the short story class who made an appointment to see me: he told me he had very nearly dropped the class but liked it too much to give up on it. He loves the stories, loves the class discussions, but is struggling with writing papers. I am impressed by his bravery, facing that difficulty, finding ways to do a reasonable job on papers despite the fact that writing is painfully hard for him.

I also have to say, I am very proud of the fact that I remembered to say to almost every student that this is what the writing process is. Not just for them, for any writer. We all write the version that doesn't work, and then we have to tear it apart and move things around and rephrase and find different support and say more (and say less).... The only difference is that right now, I'm jumping into their process and slamming a grade on it so they can see how much further their writing has to go--and so that, by listening to the questions I ask, noticing the problems I point out, they can begin to learn to ask the questions and notice the problems on their own. But, I told them, that too will take time: they will still make mistakes on the next essay, and the next one, and the next one. And yet they will get better.

At the moment, I don't even feel resistant to the idea of grading the mini-papers for the short story class (though I won't embark on that until later this weekend). A lot of those papers will probably still be relatively bad, but right now, I can remember that the students are in the process of learning. It's all a process.

Oh, this feels so much better. What a wonderful, heavenly relief.

And what a wonderful, heavenly relief to know that I have three mornings in a row in which I do not have to set the alarm for 5 a.m.--or even 6, or 7. I can sleeeeeeeeep. The mere thought is bliss. Happy weekend!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Ancient Art of Whi-Ning

I'm getting a little sick of my own kvetching, but I swear, it feels like someone is adding papers to the bottom of the stack. I just met with my last student for today, thought I had gotten a few of the remaining papers done, counted--and of the papers I need to have finished by tomorrow at 10 a.m. I have completed (drum roll, please) ... one. True, I have started on another, and it's enough of a train-wreck that it shouldn't take terribly long, but again, most of the papers I'm still facing fall into that in-between place that makes it feel worth while to comment ("this is a student who has a chance of learning something") and yet makes commenting difficult ("but this student needs to learn just about everything, from scratch").

I'm trying to figure out what will lead to the greatest productivity for the longest amount of time. As I get increasingly tired--and tired of--it becomes more difficult for me to make intelligent, sensible choices about, well, almost anything. What to do first. What to eat. Whether to nap or keep grinding.

The truly pathetic part is that even as much as I'm whining in this blog, I'm not carrying on publicly as much as I am in my own head. A toddler who has missed her nap and is hungry would make less fuss.

The thing I need to hold onto, the spar in this flood of self-pity, is that by this time tomorrow I'll be finished with these particular essays. I'll still be facing stuff to grade for the short-story class, but I'll have completed this part. And I get to enjoy myself this weekend: riding lesson on Friday for the first time in weeks, private dance lesson on Saturday--maybe even group dance class on Sunday (for the first time in forever). Sleep in there, somewhere. Ah, that will be bliss. I just have to get through one more ferocious night, one more painfully early morning, one more day of back-to-back students.

And I still have kept my temper, and I hope have been actively helpful, made something approaching sense, with every student walking in that door. And most of them are sweet souls, they truly are. I just wish they hadn't been so under-prepared by their previous educational experiences. Ah well.

I gird my loins (grid my lions), and soldier on.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blog Break

A couple of students were no-shows for their conferences, a couple are trying to reschedule (which I'll do if I can without too much inconvenience)--so I found a little window to begin this blog entry right at a moment when I also desperately needed a brain break. I then got interrupted by my last two conferences, but now I'm done with students for the day. As I've experienced the waves of students through the door, in odd moments of quiet, I've been chipping away at more grading. I didn't quite get everything done before 10 a.m. for today, but it's done now, and no one had to wait around for an ungraded paper (except the two who got here before their scheduled pick-up time--but that's not my bad). I still have a pile to grade for 10 a.m. tomorrow, a few more for tomorrow afternoon, and one final--and wearyingly large--bolus for Thursday morning. I know the stack is going down, but I don't yet feel I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet.

So far, however, despite the despair I feel over the quality of the papers and despite a rather monumental lack of sleep (and at my advanced age, I no longer do well with multiple nights of less-than-optimal sleep), I have yet to lose my patience with anyone in conference. There is a chance I may have to work to keep my temper with a few of the students I'll be facing tomorrow (one in particular, who is a disdainful wise-ass), but still, I think I can handle even the sticky ones with aplomb. I came damned close today to losing my cool with one, who said she didn't want to have to answer any questions, think about the meaning of anything--essentially do any work. OK, I said, there are other routes to success than college. If you want to go through college, this is the way you need to think--but if it's not for you, then you can find something else to do that will make you happy and make you a good living. I didn't offer the suggestion in a snarky or angry way, simply as a matter of fact (and it is true--and I'm not just thinking about trades, either, but about entrepreneurship that does not require a college degree). At last she caved in and said OK, I guess let's talk about how to revise this paper. So we did.

By the way, following a tangent, but I just read an article from (thank you, Edward) about Obama's support of community colleges. (Here's the link: I was reading along happily--until I read the bit that suggested (with a sledge-hammer) that the role of community colleges is to prepare students for industry. God dammit to hell: I work at a liberal arts institution, never mind the fact that it is a two-year rather than four-year program, and a liberal arts institution trains people to THINK, not just to be cogs in the business/industry machine. So, growf, rowr, bazz-fazz (for you Pogo fans out there).

But I digress.

I think (I hope) that the next few papers in the stack to be tackled are somewhat better than the last. That should help some. I was going to try to stay here in the office to grind through a few more, but I think I'll work more productively if I allow myself the much longer brain break of the drive home, feeding of cats and self, and then sitting on the sofa to get through as much as I can. No matter what, I'm facing another 5 a.m. alarm tomorrow, but dear heaven, it would be lovely to be in bed earlier than I was last night. That's still possible. But essentially I simply need to take a deep breath, hold my nose, dive back in. Ain't drowned yet.

Monday, October 4, 2010


It's just hard. It isn't just that there are so many papers, though there are a lot (thanks to increased class size--and the fact that the attrition so far has been a trickle, not a flood). It isn't only that I feel compelled to mark the first portion of each paper pretty intensely (I do stop marking as much half-way through each paper, but I have a complicated relationship with the comments I leave on the first half and can't bring myself to do less).

The genuine problem is that so many of the papers are in such dire shape, so far below what I would want to see from new college students, that they require an indescribable mental effort to mark. I'd give a lot to see a representative slice of papers from a composition class from 1975 (my first year in college) to see if my memory of what my classmates and I were capable of is faulty. But I don't think so. I recently re-read "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words," by Paul Roberts; it's an antique by now (written in 1958), but the student example he creates--one he would give a D to--I'd find a relief and would probably grade at a C+ (maybe even a little higher, if I were in a fragile enough mood). It is "weak in content," as Roberts points out, but at least it has something of an argument, paragraphing, and the sentences make actual sense.

So, yes, in a way I do this to myself. I assign the papers; I insist on marking at least the first two pages in depth; I determine the schedule that says I have to turn them around in a week so the students have time to revise. I insist on revision (it is an absolute requirement). And I did spend several days last week when I could have been grading these papers getting my feet clear of other homework that had piled up. And it's true, I didn't grade much on Friday, cravenly giving in to exhaustion and emotional wobbliness. So, yes, it's largely my fault that this is so freaking hard.

But not entirely. It honestly would not be so hard if more of the papers were actually good. Really good, not just better than bad. There are a few good ones--and a few that are so awful I don't have to spend any time on them (the one that came through with zero spell-checking and five egregious errors in the first paragraph, for instance: if the student can't be bothered to read it, why should I?). But the vast majority require grinding, grinding, grinding away, trying to figure out how to point out the problems so my comments will make sense to a student who thinks and writes like that.

And then, in conference, a student will point to a "thesis" that says something like, "They appreciate nature for what it gives us"--never having explained what nature gives us--and say "I don't know what you mean when you say that the thesis is too vague."


I still have a huge bunch that need to be graded for tomorrow. I know, that begs the question, why, then, am I taking the time to blog? Because I need the brain break--and I need to whine a little. I find it easier to dive back into the bilge when I can periodically come up for air and bitch about it. I confess, too, that to cut myself a little slack I did A) bail on the meeting I was supposed to go to today, used that time to mark papers, B) cancel the short story class on Wednesday (we covered the one story I assigned for this week; I moved the paper that was due; why make them come in for essentially nothing?) and C) rework the pick-up schedule for papers so I don't have quite so many to finish by Wednesday at 10 a.m. I'm hoping that makes tomorrow a little more tolerable. There's still tonight to get through, and I'm fading rapidly, but I'm going to finish one or two more here at the office and if need be, take a brief nap so I can grind through a few more at home. And get up at O-dark-30 tomorrow to finish what I can't face tonight.

At least I'm not collecting another damned thing until next week. Maybe I can get the lingering assignments from the short-story class shoveled out over the weekend, so next week won't be quite so dire.

I hate to hope for attrition, but it will make my life much easier if they start dropping in droves. I'm losing more from the short-story class almost every day, but most are still hanging on in 101. I hope they continue to do so. I also hope they don't. The former for their sake; the latter for my own.

Counting this week and the last (partial) one--and not considering Veterans' Day and Thanksgiving--twelve weeks to go. I don't think there's enough chocolate in the universe.