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Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Didn't blog yesterday: I was here grinding away at grading papers until after 8. Just as I was about to finish up, I got a call from a colleague and friend from the Writing Center, Rob Baranello--who informed me that he is dying. He didn't want me to find out through the grapevine but to tell me himself, and he was mostly calling to make sure I am still as happy as I was when he saw me after my summer trip last year. That was the last time I'd seen him: we usually see each other at placement readings, but I haven't been doing those lately, so I wasn't aware of Rob's absence. He's been very ill and is declining rapidly, but he maintains his humor, his generosity of spirit, his gentle grace and his profound innate kindness. Needless to say, after that call, I was in no condition to work any further: I went home in tears.

And I couldn't sleep well or long last night--perhaps because of the ways Rob's impending death sets up emotional reverberations of all sorts for me, perhaps because of the manic energy I've had to summon to crank through papers, probably bits of both. I still have a bunch more papers to grade, and will have to get a few more done tonight in order to have any chance at all of finishing up before that last class tomorrow. So far, across the sections/papers I've graded, I have firmly identified two instances of plagiarism and am about to go home to check another two. One may be legit: the student is smart, so it's within the realm of possibility that the paper (which is not perfect) is indeed his, but the writing shows just enough of an up-tick in linguistic and intellectual sophistication from his first paper that the red flags were raised. I'll be very happy if the report comes up clean: then he'll have earned a solid A-, which would be a pleasure for us both. If he did plagiarize, I'll be deeply disappointed in him--but I know, if he did, it was out of pure panic. The same is true of the other instance I'm checking tonight: I am 99% certain that one is indeed largely stolen from other sources, and simply hope Plagiarism Detector turns up the sources. The poor kid has been drowning since day one--but he also hasn't (to my knowledge) reached out for any assistance that might have kept his head above water--other than this attempt at cheating. He won't pass in any event, but if he plagiarized, it simply gives him the bad news earlier.

And there are nine more papers I have yet to mark beyond those two (which I had to type into the computer, which takes time, dammit, and slows the whole process down drastically). From a cursory glance, most of the nine remaining are in that painful in-between place that is most draining and time-consuming to mark. I've said this before (and will no doubt keep saying it) but the extreme ends are easy: papers that are too egregiously awful require very little work, and papers that are quite good require even less. That middle ground is where the grind happens.

Well, the current plan (subject to revision at a moment's notice) is that I will take myself out for dinner (too tired to try to think of anything to eat at home), and either work on a second (or third, or twenty-eighth) wind or nap briefly to try to find one. I don't want to make any predictions about how many of the papers I'll manage to get done tonight: not as many as I want, surely, which will mean having to be up significantly pre-dawn tomorrow--but somehow or another, by end of day tomorrow, they'll all be done. And then I'll have a tiny bit of breathing room.

And about a zillion things to fill it. My life as I know it.

I keep thinking there was something else I wanted to say (and no, though I like Steve Martin's bit, it isn't that I'm radioactive--thank god). Well, whatever it might have been, if it was interesting enough, I'll remember it and say it later. If not, probably just as well I've forgotten: this blog is filled with enough random detritus as is.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Brain break

Before I plunge back into the sea of papers that I managed skillfully to avoid over the weekend (thereby creating a huge amount of pressure on myself for the next three days), I wanted to blog clear my brains a bit. And to record a few things before I've used up every ounce of mental energy I've got.

I don't know what possessed me, but over the weekend, I sent out an e-mail to the entire campus, as follows:

"As many of you know, NCC's administration has recently made it very clear that anything we do on campus computers, using the campus inter- or intranet connections, is potentially subject to access by 'the college' at any time. Let us set aside for the moment the fact that, as one of our colleagues pointed out, there is no clarity about who constitutes 'the college' (faculty and staff are members of the college too: do we have the right to scrutinize each other's e-mails and web surfings?). The larger question is, what might lead a member of the administration, for instance, to access someone's electronic records? There are a lot of people on our campus using campus-provided computers, NCC e-mail addresses, the campus's access to the net. Why might one person's activities be singled out?

"The issue apparently is not just one of intercampus policies and politics: Wisconsin is providing a fascinating test case of the intersection between state politics, freedom of information, and academic freedom. I refer you to the case of historian Dr. William Cronon:"

Well, this has stirred up quite a bit of response, both in terms of e-mails (many of which state what I already said, as if I hadn't said it: typical of academics, for whom nothing has been said until I've said it my way) and in terms of people remarking upon it when I see them around campus. Paul just told me that the union posted the link on their web page, noting that I contributed it. And I am now fiercely aware that anything I write in this blog is subject to being read by the administration, as I usually write it on the campus computer. With that e-mail, I have painted a large target on my chest: anyone who is nervous about what faculty are up to may consider that I have provided sufficient reason for my computer files to be scrutinized. I'm not concerned about anything I say in the blog (though perhaps I should be: confident or naive?), but it's strange to contemplate the idea that what I write might be gone over, looking for evidence of some kind of misbehavior. I've never assumed that I had any particular privacy with this blog--it is a blog, after all: the point is that it is available to be read widely. And I'm a pretty good girl about following the rules. Still, it does give one to think. Cronon also thought he was following all the rules, and he's come under scrutiny at least, if not outright attack. Well, it will be interesting to see if this ends up biting me in the ass.

Turning my attention back to more joyful matters, however, the second class today was great, truly terrific. The students were fascinated by The Left Hand of Darkness--confused, but fascinated. And they were already picking up on the primary theme, on gender. Often when I've taught the novel in the past, students haven't gotten to that point until the very end--if then--and often not without a lot of prodding and Socratic questioning from me. This time, they've read three chapters and they're already getting it. Well, this one section is: the earlier bunch didn't have the same moment of brilliance. But I love that they're racing ahead of me with their questions, wanting to know more more more more. I think having them create their own glossaries is helping: they have to keep track of who's who and what's what. And since I'm collecting the glossaries weekly, I can see when they're way off base (as on occasion they are).

I've done something that may or may not be a mistake. I gave them the web addresses for two informal, non-scholarly study guides to the novel. I did tell them that they still need to read the book, and I did tell them that they must not plagiarize from the study guides when doing their reading journals--nor use the guides at all, in any way, for their final papers. My worry is that they may use them not as a guides but as an end-run around having to do the work of reading the book. My hope is that they can get the big picture stuff cleared up by using the study guides and thus can turn their attention to more in-depth understanding of the novel, which is why I took the risk. My guess is that I'll get a mix of both.

I also realized I assigned an insane amount of reading for next week. I'm going to give them all the good news next time I see them and even things out a bit. It's still a hell of a lot of reading, but not quite so wildly optimistic. I already told the morning section of 102 that I'm postponing the due date for their revisions: since I won't return their first versions until Thursday and then see them again Monday, I didn't think it was fair that they have less time than the other sections to get their work turned around. Now they have more time--which also is not fair, so though I wasn't going to, I will postpone revisions for all the sections. Realistically, I probably won't get to marking anything until that weekend anyway. It will mean they have less time to do the reading instead (easing pressure one place leads to crunch elsewhere)--but it will also mean that they have to have the reading done for the first class of the week, which would be better, as it will give us more to discuss.

And OK, I admit it: part of why I'm blogging now instead of at the end of the day is procrastination. Not only did I encounter the semester's first instance of blatant plagiarism yesterday, which put my nose seriously out of joint, but all of the improvements that students made in the revisions of their first papers have disappeared in the first version of their second papers. I understand that this is to be expected, but it's still disheartening.

But the papers still need to be graded, no matter what--and I have a lot to do yet: twelve for Wednesday, and another slew for Thursday (somewhere between twenty and thirty: I counted but have blissfully forgotten). And I have meetings during club hour tomorrow and Thursday, and students coming in, and a zillion things to eat up every second of my time. And that 5:30 alarm thing has knocked the proverbial stuffing out of me. Still, there's no way out but through. So (as my buddy Jane and I used to say) onward and awkward.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Minor miracle

I'm astonished. Last night, after I wrote that optimistic blog entry about all the work I was going to accomplish, I hit the wall long before I anticipated--hit it so hard that, as Paul said, I recoiled from my desk and was out the door in a matter of minutes. Consequently, even with a 5:30 alarm this morning, I was completely certain that I'd not be able to get everything marked for today's classes and was feeling somewhat dismal about still having stuff tripping me up as I head into serious paper grading.

But, Lo! Not only did I get everything marked for 229 (a miracle in itself), I also was able to return assignments to this afternoon's 102. Ta-daaa!

And here's the irony: two students showed up for 229 today. Yep, two. So I'd knocked myself out to mark assignments and grade papers for students who didn't appear. And there were a number of students in 102 who also have fallen by the wayside, apparently, so again, I drove myself to mark assignments that are still sitting in the class folder.

Ah well.

In the continuing miracle, however, I also just wrote up the observation I conducted last week, so I'm caught up on observations--until I observe another person next week, and another the following week.

Getting that observation write-up done is a blessing, because P&B business is starting to pile up. I'm also "mentoring" a number of people who have to submit year-end evaluations (don't get me started on that)--not to mention that I have to do my own, which Paul is mentoring--and I have to evaluate a bunch of applications from people who are looking for adjunct positions (and set up interviews with any who seem suitable). Things just keep rolling down the pike, and I have to deal with each one as it becomes the new priority.

Oh, yes, and last night when I got home, I worked to fix the shabby documentation in my article for the Portuguese publication--only to get an e-mail today from my friend, asking me to do it a different way. Doing so won't be onerous, but it does need to be done tonight, as soon as I get home. Then I can start to relax.

Picking up on another thread from an earlier post (yesterday's? don't remember): I mentioned the student I thought I might have chased away, one who may haunt me. She showed up with her withdrawal slip today. I told her I didn't want her to withdraw, but she insisted she had to.

Again, ah well.

In any event, my little bag is packed with all the essays from the 102s, and the first thing I have to do is to be sure I got everything I was expecting: so many have been trickling in, I'm not sure that all the students who e-mailed me about papers actually came through on printing them out and getting them to me. If not, I want to find out what happened. At this point, I want to try to keep most of the students who are left to the bitter end, even if that means bending the rules a bit.

A bunch of the remaining students are truly sinking, though. Some already got "Early Warning" notices; others didn't and should--but one idiocy of the system is that in order to issue a warning to a student who has gotten into trouble since the start of the process, one must delete the entire section's worth of warnings and re-enter them. I've already done that once; I don't want to do it again. I'll just give my own, informal individual warnings to the students who didn't get them but need them. As is typical, with the advent of the second (poetry) paper, the classes have contracted sharply, from about 18 to about 12 in each section. The losses may not stop there, either. I hate for the classes to get too small (and teaching two students was truly ridiculous, though we made the best use we could of the time), but on the other hand, fewer students means fewer papers to mark.

And the count-down to end of semester begins. I will meet with all my classes twelve more times this semester. Technically, the classes that meet on Monday will meet thirteen more times, but it's unlikely that final day will include much if anything in the way of contact with students. So I'm calling it twelve. As usual, that seems like a lot, until I think of everything we still need to cover; then it is alarmingly few. But pretty soon, we'll be at the "hold on and scream" part of the roller-coaster.

I wonder when I'll feel like I can breathe again? After Portugal, probably. As Churchy La Femme (of Pogo fame) would say, "Wee-hawken!"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Early blog

Well, how embarrassing. I just got an e-mail from my Portuguese friend, who is organizing the publication and conference I've been talking about, and apparently I left five sources off my works cited page. I'd slaughter my students for an oversight like that. What an idiot!


I'm taking a small break from grinding through the accumulated piles of old assignments. I was very happy that I got all the antique homework back to my 102 students today, and I just finished marking the stack for tomorrow morning's 102. I still have quite a bit to churn through for 229, and then a somewhat smaller wodge for tomorrow afternoon's 102--but it's early yet. I am certain I can get through the stuff for 229 before I leave the office today, and am hoping madly I can finish up tomorrow, around the dentist appointment I have when I'd normally be in a meeting.

Meanwhile, late papers continue to trickle in--and generally, they're pretty crappy and not worth having waited for. I don't intend to start marking them until I have everything I'm likely to get--and until my feet are clear of old stuff that's been kicking around too long.

In class today, we started reading The Left Hand of Darkness, taking it one paragraph at a time. The students did pretty well with it--but I find I'm treading a fine line. I want them to take time and pay close attention, but I don't want them to get so bogged down they can't get through the whole book as quickly as we need to. William is known to toss out readings he'd intended to assign in order to work through something as slowly as the students need--but with something like LHoD, we'd probably have to take the whole semester. Not only do I feel that it's important to cover several genres (and more than one work) in 102, but the other down side to that approach is that some students would be bored out of their gourds, because they're able to apprehend it much more rapidly.

Somewhat parenthetically, I mentioned that I'm a Le Guin scholar: they thought that was incredibly cool. I've not had that experience in the past: often before, I've mentioned it and students have had an "oh yeah? ho-hum" reaction. I wonder why this bunch got so excited about it--especially about the fact that I have a correspondence with Le Guin. (OK, I admit, I'm pretty proud of that--though she's famously generous about corresponding with those who bother to contact her about their critical work on her writings.) I also mentioned that I'd like to do a student edition of the novel--and they were fascinated by the idea, loved it. I've got to get working on that.

I consciously did make a point of telling them that they are capable of reading the novel, even though it may seem hard. I said, "This will be a challenge to your critical reading skills, but you've all improved a lot over the semester, and you can do this. You have the chops for it, even though you may sometimes feel confused; you'll get to a deeper understanding than you might believe possible." It's another balancing act: I want to acknowledge the struggle, so they don't feel like there's something wrong with them when they encounter it, but on the other hand, I don't want to plant the idea that they necessarily will struggle, setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well, we'll see how they do.

It's a grey, gross, rainy/snowy day today, and I'm underslept (like that's unusual), and I am yearning for chocolate, which I'm trying to avoid (in an effort to regain that sylphlike figure I was working on), but cacao derivatives or no, it's back to the salt mines now....

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Seven--no, no, wait, five, no, six...

That's how many students showed up for this afternoon's 102 class. One student was there at the start of class but had to print her paper. I sent her off to do that: she came back about 25 minutes later. One appeared at the beginning of class and then left. I have no idea why. He gave me a pleasant hello and disappeared, never returned. I thought he'd just gone to the bathroom, but if he did, he literally went down the drain. Of the six who ultimately were there to engage in the peer review process, one had only a rough hand-written draft, two spent most of the time working on their individual works cited pages instead of reviewing each other's papers. One pair did great work--and seemed to click well as partners, too. I joined in with them briefly: fun to participate in their evaluations of each other's writing.

When I got back to the office, one more paper from a student in that class was waiting on the office door, and I got an e-mail from another student who was too sick to make it to class (I believe him: he's a good student, and he was following my rules by not simply sending the paper via e-mail without asking first). So out of the 18 student who ostensibly are still attending the class, I got a sum total of six papers with the promise of two more.

I'm fretting about one student in that class. She did a terrible job on her first paper, and her grades have been horrific--but in class she'd finally seemed like she was getting the hang of reading and analyzing, certainly she'd started participating, which she'd not done earlier in the semester. She seemed geared up to write this new paper--but then she got back her revision of the first one, and she was conspicuously absent today. I fear that her grade on the revision was so low that she gave up in despair. I just redid the "early warning" notices and told her not to give up, but I may also send her an e-mail. I don't know why I want so badly to try to rescue her. Her work truly has been awful, not anywhere near college level yet. But she was trying; she was moving up; she was honestly getting somewhere good, and I don't want her to lose that.

Hell and damn and blast. I am now telling myself I shouldn't have given her paper all the awful penalties (which reduced it to a 25 out of 100: I could simply have given her the F, which would average at 59--not quite as painful), or that I should have found a way to talk to her first, or given her the paper back earlier, or later, or something....

She may be one of the ones who haunts me. I'm still haunted by a student from years ago--five or six years ago--who thought he didn't have to turn in his final proposal until the "drop dead" deadline: he had been a good student all semester long, but I told him his only option was to withdraw, as he'd not complied with the submission requirements for the paper. I still wish I'd handled that differently. There are others who haunt me like that, but the common theme is that they had potential, and I feel like I didn't honor it sufficiently. There are students I remember for other reasons, positive and negative, but the ones who haunt me are the ones to whom I think I did a disservice.

Let this be a reminder to you, Prof. P, that what you do for a living actually matters to you. (She says to herself, as a stern counter to all the heavy sighing and kvetching she indulges in.)

Right at this juncture, however, I'm still cooking along with a certain amount of energy, miraculously enough, so I'll organize the chaotic piles of paper on my desk, hoping to prevent the loss of anything crucial, and then--assuming I still have some mental acumen, I'll get through a little more of the pile of assignments from 229, getting my feet clear to face the 102 papers. ... Funny, I wrote that, and immediately felt pole-axed by exhaustion. But of course I'm looking forward to grading those papers as if each one were the perfect intellectual bon-bon of delight.

By the way, if y'all don't know Taylor Mali, he's terrific. Here are links to two YouTube videos. The first is humorous, the second fierce in all the best ways.

Hope you enjoy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday: Ick

That 5:30 alarm is just a bitch and a half. I'm counting Mondays until the end of the semester: I never want to teach a D section again. (For those of you with a passion for keeping track, there are seven more of them, including the last day of the semester, dammit.)

The fact that it was a rainy, chilly, raw day today added insult to the injury of the fact that students had a paper due. In my first 102 section, out of 16 students, seven were there with actual papers. Two other students were in the room but not really ready: one was there with rough notes (I let him stay, even though I shouldn't have) and one--who already had five absences and had turned in approximately two homework assignments all semester--I told to withdraw. A relief to be rid of him. One student showed up with his paper too late to participate in the peer review process, but at least he was there with a paper. A few came in via e-mail or were dropped off, and I have promises for a few more, which should be arriving in the next day or so. Several students I haven't heard anything from at all--and one of the ones who seems to be disappearing will be a real loss: he's very smart and has a lot of potential, but he's done almost zero work and has missed a bunch of classes. Shame, really.

A greater number of students showed up for the later section; I have more papers in hand and a most of the remaining students have contacted me about getting papers to me--but there are two students from whom I've had no word, and thus have no clue about.

The best news in that class is that the truculent idiot who has been a pimple on the ass of progress all semester finally got the idea (after getting another failing grade, on his revision of his first essay) and withdrew. The whole class feels lighter and happier having him gone--just to me, I think, but still.

The upshot is that they're continuing to drop away--but the ones who are hanging on are, as I've said before, really starting to latch on and get the hang of the thing. They're working hard--and they're surprisingly undismayed by the grades on their first revisions. The mood in both rooms today was remarkably upbeat, and it was great to see them working their way through the problems, especially with works cited pages (pulling out their style guides, referring to handouts, asking questions, really putting forth the effort). I love watching them think; I love watching them strive. They're learning. The results may not show it yet, but they're learning. Next week I'll have to remind myself that I said that, but it's true.

Of course, I did have to have a serious talk with two young women about taking responsibility for making sure they get what they need--or that they get me what I need. I'm probably being too nice to them, but I'll allow them to consider what I said without imposing any further punishment than the late penalties they've already accrued. Long story in both cases, but ultimately, the point is, they need to demonstrate that they care about their papers and their grades, and they haven't done that very well right at the moment.

It was interesting, too, chunking my way through assignments from the Native American Lit class as the 102 students were doing their peer review. The difference in sophistication, both in terms of writing skills and in terms of analysis, is palpable. Of course, the few students who are left in 229 are all pretty good, and in the 102s I'm still dealing with the wide range of potentialities, but overall, the difference across the semesters is notable.

However, I'm far too tired to do any more work today, early though it is. I wish I were having another day like last Thursday, when lack of sleep led to a sort of manic, Energizer-bunny state, but--blame it on the weather if you will--all I want to do is read Martin Chuzzlewit with a pot of tea at my elbow until I fall into a nap (or it's time to have dinner). So I'll finish my office hour and take care of a few bits of life maintenance before heading home. I won't nap (by the time I'm home it will be too late to nap without utterly screwing up my night's sleep), but work? Nah, not any more today. Stick a fork in me; I'm done.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


By a miracle, I managed to get all the papers graded to return to students today--and even had time to mark and return the reading journals for this afternoon's 102 class. The irony, however, is that I forgot to return the papers to the early section of 102: the papers were sitting there on the desk in front of me, because I wanted to give them back at the end of the class (so students wouldn't be so freaked out by their grades that they'd be unable to concentrate), and I got caught up and forgot. However, not one student asked about them, so clearly the pressure I felt to let them know how they'd done was entirely self-imposed. (Qu'elle surprise.) Well, it will be interesting to see what happens when they get the work back next week, having done a second paper for me in the meanwhile. (At least that's the ideal: I wonder how many will bail on the poetry paper.)

The early 102 went pretty well. Only 12 students were there, so I made them all move close to me in the front of the room and treated them as one big group--and holy moly, if they didn't all have something to say, even one student who has never, prior to this, offered anything to class discussion. I can feel them starting to latch on. It's too late for a few (including, very possibly, that young man who spoke up today for the first time--which would be a terrible shame), but at least they're finally getting the hang of how the whole process is supposed to work. I don't just mean analyzing poetry, either: the whole process of being a student. The second 102 was a little bumpier, especially at first, but they got rolling along OK after a while. We did finish up early, however: since we'd already had a class to go over most of the poems (not the case for the early section, which I'd canceled on Monday), there wasn't as much for us to cover. I gave them every chance I could to ask questions so they feel prepared to write their papers over the weekend--and a few stayed after class to get clarifications--but they were done, as in finished, as in cooked, so off we all went.

On a different note, I met with the student from Native American Lit who had asked about dropping--and I was unable to persuade him to stay. His reasons were many, and while I am deeply disappointed to lose him, he is making a good decision for himself, so I can't fuss too much. I made a pitch to have him register for the short story class I'll be teaching in the fall: he'd be an asset to any English class, so even though he doesn't need the English credits, I'm hoping he'll sign up. It was interesting, too, that when I told the other students in the class that he'd withdrawn, they were genuinely sorry to hear it. They don't quite have the chemistry to really bond as buddies (as happened the last time I taught Nature in Lit--several millennia ago), but the group is so tiny, they know who has something valuable to say, and he did. Ah well. A shame.

Speaking of that Nature in Lit course, however, I just wrote to a student from that particular class: he and I tried unsuccessfully all last year to find a time to meet and--because another former student (from a different class) had just contacted me to see about a catch-up session--I though of him. He's doing beautifully, has been accepted into a teacher training program, and he'll be brilliant at it. I'm looking forward to talking with him and getting the full story. I'm also looking forward to meeting with the young woman who contacted me. She was very quiet in class but a powerful presence nonetheless, and I'm intrigued to start to get to know her better.

I love when the good students keep in touch. There are a few former students who keep in touch when I wish they wouldn't, for one reason or another, but for the most part, I'm immensely gratified when students felt enough of a bond with me to want to keep it going. It's more than just a sop to my frustrated maternal urges: one of the reasons I love teaching is because I know I can make a difference in people's lives. The fact that students come to me for mentoring--even friendship--during and after our classroom time together is evidence that I am, in fact, making that difference. It may be a small difference, but it's something, and it makes me feel I am doing my part to increase the light in this world. That may sound hokey, but I truly mean it. I've always joked that I am really a missionary, preaching the Power of the Word (literally: the power of language) to the unconverted. My zeal may flag on occasion; I may suffer periodic crises of faith, but the analogy is apt.

And when the "spirit" is strong within me--as apparently it was today--I can fly on the high octane fuel of the work. I got very little sleep last night and, since I was (typically) pretty tired even before then, I should by rights have been falling over today. Nope: full of energy all day. It's only been since I got back to the office that I've started to feel a dip in my ability to focus and be productive. I even thought I might hammer out the instruction sheets for a few upcoming assignments before heading home, but then a wiser impulse prevailed. Instead, I'll do my end-of-week routine (watering the plants; making notes and forming stacks of things to tend to next week, so I don't forget; making sure I've packed up everything I want to take home to work on over the weekend--assuming I do any work over the weekend) and leave well before seven.

It's still light, and it's a spectacularly beautiful day here: warm and sunny and smelling sweetly of the coming of spring. It's a lovely way to close out the work week.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Very quick

Haven't had time to blog today, just got home from dance class and have to put in at least an hour of work tonight--and still get up at 5 a.m. to finish everything for tomorrow's classes. I don't understand what's happened the last two days, that the grading has gone so much more slowly than it did Monday when I was home. Usually it's the other way: there are fewer fun distractions at work, so I usually work better--assuming I am not interrupted by other work and minor details like having to teach. I don't recall many interruptions today, but I'm still scrambling to be ready for tomorrow's classes. Oh argh.

Did have a pretty great laugh with Paul over a sentence from Martin Chuzzlewit that can be wildly misread, depending on the meaning one chooses to attach to one particular word. A little levity is good for the soul.

But it's getting later by the second (funny how that happens) and the rotten cats steadfastly refuse to grade papers for me. They keep telling me its a matter of principle, but I think they're just lazy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The day got shot full of them. I played hooky yesterday to get caught up on paper grading and got in a good whack at it, but I needed to do the same today--and it didn't happen. I don't know what happened at home this morning that got me here later than I intended (OK, well, I did reset the alarm but even beyond that, it took me way more than my usual time to get from bed to office). Then on top of whatever happened there, I had to talk to Bruce about that student complaint, which took longer than I anticipated, and then in the office I kept uncovering things I had to take care of, and then a colleague dropped by with a work question and we got chatting--which was great; it was a blast talking with her, but that ate up a bunch more time... and so it went.

Bottom line: I had planned to hang out with another friend tomorrow after work, but I've had to ask for a reschedule: I'm going to have to get in early and still will need to use every second of the afternoon that I can grab after I finish teaching my one class and observing a colleague. I'd even cancel my scheduled private dance lesson at 7:30, except A) I know by then I'll have hit a serious wall anyway, won't be working productively any more, and B) with any luck at all, I'll manage to finish before I hit the wall, or at least get close enough that I can polish off the last few papers during my office hour on Thursday.

Speaking of that office hour, one of my students in Native American Lit sent me an e-mail today asking when he could come by with his withdrawal slip--and I'm going to do everything I can to talk him out of it. He's a real asset to the class: good readings, intelligent comments, personable. He may need to withdraw for reasons having nothing to do with the class itself, which I fully understand, but I hope to hell I can persuade him to stay--for his own benefit and for the benefit of the rest of the class. Without him, we're down to six students. Fortunately, they're six great students, but still. Even one more would be a boon.

Two of the young women from that class stayed after to ask my advice about what degrees they should strive for, what makes sense in terms of majors and further degrees. I love when they feel they can talk to me about that kind of thing: mentoring these young people is one of my favorite parts of my job. Any work I can do one-on-one with the better minds--or even the more dedicated students--is manna.

Today's 102 went fine. The students did pretty well with the poetry, and the joking around and getting silly is building in that bunch. I always take that as a good sign: they're relaxing and getting comfortable with me and with each other. They're better at poetry analysis than they think they are, when they work at it. Pretty cool. I loved when one of the students who has struggled to this point asked if she could keep her reading journals so she could start working on her paper: she wanted her notes to refer to. Absolutely! I'm thrilled she's already getting going with the writing, and delighted she's finding the reading journal valuable to her process. That's the point, after all.

So, that was the day. Now, I'm going to eat a little dinner before I head off to dance class. I can feel the wall looming, so it's unlikely that I'll get even one more paper graded with what's left of tonight, but hope springs eternal. Daylight savings time is helpful: the fact that it's still fully light out tends to keep my energy from flagging completely. Please heaven, that will help me grind through all I need to do tomorrow, too.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


First interesting moment of the day: the 4:00 102 class seemed functionally brain dead, and I was seriously not in the mood to deal with it. So I told them if they wanted to stay and do the work, fine, but if they'd prefer to go drink coffee or study for their math tests, they should go do that. One guy took me up on it (he actually did have a math test the next period). The rest looked bewildered but decided to stay. I said, OK, but you've got to do the work: I'm not doing it. There were 11 students. They sort-of did the work. But I was interested that they decided to stay. I was expecting a lot more of them to leave when I gave them the option. I wonder if their decision had anything to do with shame....

Second interesting moment: tonight was my first time fulfilling my function as evening assistant chair in terms of meeting with a student who had a complaint. I was anticipating the usual "the rules aren't fair" or "I don't agree with my grades" sort of thing. Not at all. The student's complaints were entirely legitimate: the professor is, in fact, seriously short-changing the students in terms of work they're doing, the way the class meets, and how frequently it doesn't meet. He may be very close to being in breach of contract, in fact. The student was clear, objective, had some documentation of the problems--and said that her main concern is that, given the way the semester is going, she won't be prepared for the next level because she isn't being given assignments that allow her to learn what she needs to.

The sad part is, I don't know what can be done to help her at this stage. The semester is essentially half over, so she can't get her money back; she can't transfer into another section--and even if the professor's behavior suddenly changes drastically, she still won't be as well prepared as she could (should) have been. I told her that I would check with Bruce to see what, if anything, can be done--and thanked her for bringing the problems to our attention. I also told her that the worst case would be that she would have to just grit her teeth and finish up the semester. But I can tell from her demeanor, she's the kind of student I would love to have: I can't speak to the quality of her work, not having seen anything she's written (other than her initial e-mail to Bruce, which is clear and well-constructed), but Id welcome someone with her work ethic, at least, and I am disturbed she is having such an unhappy experience. She deserves better.

So, I'll talk to Bruce about it on Monday. I've asked the student to write a formal letter about the problem to Bruce or to me: we'll see if she does. (She didn't feel comfortable with the idea of meeting with the professor and me at the same time: she's worried about possible vindictive grading, which is an understandable worry.) I also suggested that she urge other students to meet with me or to write letters: the more documentation we have of the problem, the easier it is for us to address it. But it certainly is interesting for me to handle the complaint: usually I only find out about this sort of thing when enough red flags have been raised that P&B gets called in on the matter.

Speaking of handling things, I did manage to force myself to grade a couple of revisions earlier today--and did manage to keep the marking to a minimum. I'm going to take all the rest home over the weekend, even though it's vanishingly unlikely that I'll grade even half that much. But if I can manage to crank through them quickly enough, I may astonish myself. No more for tonight, however. I just found out that any evening assistant stuff I do is by appointment only, so I don't think I need to officially sit here waiting for something to happen. Operating on that philosophy, I intend to pack up and get out of here. My typical treat for surviving until Thursday is to take myself out for dinner, usually to the same restaurant, usually to have the same thing. It lacks adventure, but it scores high on gratification. And a person can use a little of that at the end of the work week. TGIT.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Another nice moment

I've been on the fence for a while about a conflict: Winona LaDuke is going to be on campus to speak on Monday, March 21--which also happens to be the day that my 102 classes have first versions of their next papers due. The procedure is for them to do peer review that day, and any corrections they make in class are considered as I grade their papers. However, my later section meets precisely when LaDuke is going to be given her presentation. Since I was one who made a pitch to bring LaDuke here, I rather hate to miss seeing her--so after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I decided to let the students vote. I made up little ballot slips so they could decide: they could vote either to give up the peer review session and attend the LaDuke presentation, or to have the peer review but miss doing something different (and something that would connect with the fact that we just did a unit in Native American poetry). The overwhelming vote was in favor of doing the peer review. I had a feeling that would be the outcome, but I was expecting a slim majority, not the landslide vote. I'm very pleased: it tells me that they feel the process works for them, and that's beneficial feedback.

Another lovely bit about that is that I went from class directly to a meeting. As the meeting broke up, we were discussing things we have had to miss, and I mentioned the conflict, my disappointment that I'll have to miss LaDuke--but my gratification about the student vote. I was talking to one of the main librarians for the campus (and a woman who has been a powerful force in any number of committees) and an associate dean--and they both said that my students' decision was a credit to me as a professor. I was proud of that, not only because of the vote of confidence from my colleagues but also because it was coming from people who are among the movers and shakers on campus. Nice.

I had intended to get a lot more work done after that meeting, but instead I ended up talking with Paul for a good while about his process with drafts and peer review and so on, as fodder for me while I think about revamping my approach. He has a ton--excuse me, eleven bajillion--papers to grade, so I felt a little guilty for keeping him here talking about this (especially as no food or alcoholic beverages were involved), but it was helpful in my continuing cogitations on this knotty issue. I did get some work done--I completed the write-up of last week's observation (P&B business)--but I didn't get the student homeworks marked that I intended to. Plus, I had hoped to be home by now. Ah well. Barring disaster or the unforeseen, I should be able to get the homework for the first of tomorrow's classes marked in the morning before class, and the other section done during club hour--during which time I also desperately need to start grading revisions.

I truly do need to keep my desire to give feedback on a short leash when I mark those revisions. They have another paper coming up, so they need to know where they did better and where the did not--but I will drive myself into a straight-jacket and a rubber room if I give them more than the bare minimum. I've got to get these papers out of my hair for my own sanity. More to the point, they need them back so they can consider how to adjust their next papers, as they attempt to avoid making the same mistakes.

I do have to say, it was lovely to sleep as long as I needed to this morning and to wake up without the alarm clock. My mood is still not as stable (and upbeat) as I'd prefer, but getting sufficient sleep is a boon. But speaking of mood stabilization, it's time to begin to haul my brains out of this mode and start letting go of the anxieties of the day. Cleansing breath, ommmm, ommmmm, ommmmm....

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Thank you, Dr. Payne"

I still find it strange to be called Dr. Payne. I'm used to "professor," with or without the name attached, but "Dr. Payne" still sounds funny. But how nice to hear it in a sentence with those two words, "thank you," in front of it. That from a student in today's 102: he admits to finding English difficult (he's a math/science guy), but he's earnest and genuinely wants to do well--and he's got the chops to do it. He was thanking me for helping him prioritize the work he's missing and for telling him that he's the kind of student I like to see succeed. He may never be a spectacularly good student in this discipline, but I can see he has the potential, and the work ethic, to improve, which is delightful in and of itself. Plus I just like him: he's a little more grown up than some of the crop, and the lights are on: clearly an intellect at work.

I must say, I'm very proud of myself for getting all the way to the end of today. Last night was a bad one in terms of sleep, so my eyes have felt like fine-grit sandpaper all day, and my energy (and mood) were not conducive to vast enthusiasm for teaching. I kept giving myself permission to bail--and didn't. Tomorrow I can make into an easy day if I want (or need) to: I only have one class, followed by a meeting, so I can come to campus late and leave early. I "should" grind through assignments tomorrow, and I will, if I'm feeling up for it, but if it's another day like today, I'll allow myself to procrastinate a while longer on marking revisions and take advantage of the time I can steal at home.

Speaking of papers to grade, Native American Lit was interesting today: their first substantial paper was due, so only four students showed up--out of the seven or eight who may still be sticking to the class. Three of the students who were missing today I hope will be back (with their papers) on Thursday: I like having a small class, but four students is a bit absurd. Still, those four are terrific--and one of them spoke up today for the first time, offering interpretations without prompting. Very cool.

Now I'm here to fulfill my evening office hour and to noodle around until dance class. Despite the gritty eyes factor, I do want to dance tonight, for the exercise and as something I do for the selfish pleasure of it. But between now and then, I'm not going to even pretend I'm going to get any work done. I'm going to read the current Dickens novel (I'm rereading them all, and am working through Martin Chuzzlewit at the moment), eat my dinner, and maybe close my eyes for a bit. God, I hope I sleep well tonight!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Quick post

All's well today. Both classes did fine with the poetry, although I saw an alarming trend in their responses to the critical essays, in which they seemed unable to differentiate between when the critic was quoting from the poetry and when he or she was analyzing the quotation--but that's why I do the homework with them, so we can catch that kind of problem before they start writing their papers.

My favorite thing from the last two days of classes has been seeing students have the "ah-hah!" moment, when suddenly my questions and close attention to individual words lead them to an interpretation that makes the whole poem click into place. Watching their faces light up is a treat.

I keep putting off grading their revisions. I tell myself it's because I need to get their reading journals and responses back to them so they're ready for the next discussion and the coming paper, but really, it's just that I don't much want to burst this happy bubble I'm in, and I'm afraid the revisions will be the usual disappointment, showing microscopic change at best. Oh, wouldn't it be lovely to be pleasantly surprised?

Shifting gears, I just sent of my candidate statement for P&B: yes, I'm running again. And for Scheduling. And for Academic Standing (a college-wide elected position, since I don't want to do College Wide Curriculum any more). This from a woman who says she wants to cut down on committees. If I'm elected to all of the above, my committee obligations will be P&B (weekly), Academic Standing (monthly), college-wide Assessment (monthly), departmental Assessment (monthly), and Scheduling (once a semester). And I'm officially the new Professional Liaison Coordinator for ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment), a "leadership position" for the flagship organization in my field (and ASLE is international).

And I still worry about having enough to get full professor in five years. I need publications! Ay-yi-yi.

But I'm gnawing on ideas for a radical reconfiguration of how I approach comp classes, which--once in effect--will (I hope) free up a fair amount of time. And that is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Now I'm dashing off to a doctor's appointment, then back to the office long enough to pack up and head home. Tonight's date with Paul has been postponed until he's healthy (he seems to have bronchitis), so instead I'll try to make an early night of it, get a good run at the day tomorrow.

Off this goes, with nary a re-read or proof....

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Stick a fork in me...

...I'm done. I'm very proud of myself that I managed to return all the old homework I'd collected over the past few weeks (mostly by not commenting on it at all: reading journals about the short stories no longer matter, as that paper is done and gone, so why point out the problems with interpretation?). Of course, I now have enormous, steaming piles of revisions to mark, plus the reading journals and other homework I collected this week, but I'm going to do my damndest to stick to my plan to mark less, less, less. My obsessive paper marking is doing no good to anyone, so I'm taking myself very firmly to task about giving them as much as they can assimilate--and no more.

Well, anyway.

We had fun in Native American lit today: I brought in some poems for us to work through on the fly, and they did a nice job. The best part was when response to a poem led to talking about larger issues: how we see our place in the world, the environmental destruction we know we're causing and yet how we can't seem to really change how we see the world so that we'll behave differently (this is precisely what my paper was about, one of those rare but fascinating moments when something that's popping in my head spontaneously arises for the students as well, with no prompting from me). I was aware that the niggling headache I've been fighting for the last three days--and the fact that it's Thursday--didn't lead to terrific teaching on my part (my intellect feels like it's got a flat tire), but the students did most of the heavy lifting and did it well.

I had a similar feeling about this afternoon's 102. As was the case on Tuesday, most of them were highly engaged in analyzing the poetry and did a great job of it. One group were completely useless lunks--so I was happy that they were grouped together; that way they didn't drag down any of the other groups. The lunks are so utterly certain that they cannot "get" poetry that they won't even make the teeniest attempt, despite my encouragement and support. So, their loss. If they won't try to engage in the process, I'm not going to try to reach in there to save them. When it comes time to write their next papers, they'll simply implode and that will be that.

Both the other 102s (the one I met yesterday and today's morning section) certainly did better on the second go-round than they had the first day. I also was intrigued to observe a colleague yesterday and to notice how completely different her approach is--and yet that we end up saying many of the same things (almost word for word) and eventually get our students to the same place. She starts by asking, "What is this poem about?" I never do. I say, "Just observe. Notice anything: individual words or phrases, what you feel, how it looks on the page. Then start to ask questions to make connections. Don't try to interpret yet." But we both end up pointing out how compact and dense poetry is, how important it is to pay attention to specific, individual words, that misinterpretations are possible, but so are multiple interpretations (and they're valid as long as the words of the text support them), and so on.

And we have the same experience of some students being willing to speak even when their ideas are idiotic, others offering interpretations that are a lot more valuable, and a lot not speaking at all.

Shifting gears, I'm looking at the calendar and am struck all over again by what a weird semester this is. There are six more weeks to get through before spring break--but once we're back, we've got three weeks and we're done. This long, looooooong stretch in the middle is in some ways good: we can get a head of steam going and roll from one assignment to the next without interruption. On the other hand, the exhaustion factor is going to build exponentially, especially for them. I have very cleverly arranged that my students have to write their final paper proposals over spring break, so I don't have to deal with them. I will, however, almost certainly have other stuff piled up that I should (but probably won't) mark. And once the break is over, Jesus, what a wild ride that will be.

Still, that's projecting awfully far into the future. I know I will have far fewer students by the end (the lunks, for instance, will very likely drop away as the assignments get progressively more challenging). I know I'll ride waves of energy and exhaustion, as I always do. And for now, all I really need to do is figure out what I want for dinner. I already watered the office plants and packed up the assignments I'm taking home for the weekend (in the foolish and no doubt delusional expectation that I'll actually get around to marking them); I've checked student e-mail and put the things I need to tend to on Monday front and center on the desk. I've got fifteen more minutes of my evening office hour, and then I am so out of here I may break the sound barrier. Feels good to cross off another week.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Back to business as usual

It was very interesting to spend most of the break working on my own scholarship for a change. I felt exceeding rusty and slow--and am not utterly thrilled with the end result--but it had to be done (the deadline was yesterday), so off it went. I was writing again about Le Guin, so I e-mailed a copy of the piece to her (she always likes to know what we critics are up to): her response was immediate, thought-provoking, and made me dearly wish I could snatch the thing back and have another week to work on it. She is ferociously smart, clear--and generous, in taking the time to read the piece so quickly and get back to me promptly with a genuine, considered response. I'm in her debt, always.

And now, back cranking away at the same old clunky machine of the semester, I find it's difficult to adjust my mind back into this work mode (and certainly difficult to get my body back into this sleep schedule). But in collecting revisions from 102 students the last two days, I am again touched by how earnest many of them are, how much they want to please me (us--adults generally, faculty in specific in this instance). It's good to remember that about the students, as I am significantly pissed off with the administration these days: their goals are so frequently utterly antithetical to the presumed goal of a college--actually educating individuals--that it's crazy-making.

Case in point, we're once again having to battle to have placement essays evaluated by human beings instead of computers. Despite the approaching singularity, computers are still not smart enough to know if a sentence actually means anything--certainly not if it means anything of value or interest. But using the computer to score placement essays means that students can have instant results: they know their placement immediately, without having to wait for some poky, out-moded, imprecise human to actually evaluate whether they're capable of thought. Why why why do the students need to be "served" so immediately? Well, because if they have to wait 24 hours to find out their placement, they might change their minds and not come to NCC at all! Qu'elle catastrophe! We want them, we lust for them, we yearn for them and we must please them at all costs to keep them with us--at least long enough to collect their tuition. Then we don't give a rat's petite patoot what happens.

Breathing, breathing, in with the good air, out with the evil thoughts.

I'd rather think about my students. How's that for a nice change? Today's 102 was especially good for my morale. We embarked on poetry, and though at first there was the usual resistance (and misunderstanding about how to approach a poem), once I encouraged them to simply notice words without trying to figure out meaning, and then encouraged them to move from the words to questions, the discussion took off. This class did the best of the three in getting involved and excited. (Maybe I should always teach on 4 hours of sleep and after six plus hours of other work.) In addition, one student brought me a box of chocolates to thank me for having left her a voice mail about where to pick up her marked paper so she could do her revision; I'm happy with the chocolate but more touched that she recognized I had done something for her that I didn't need to do. And one talked to me after class about his revision: he'll be late with it, but he said, "This is the stuff I need to learn." That's one of the happiest sentences a professor can hear a student say. And he was in utter earnest about it, too. Nice.

However, given the above-mentioned lack of sleep (and long day), I haven't got it in me even to try to organize the chaos I've created on my desk since 8:30 this morning. I was very gratified that I was able to mark everything to return to the students in 229 today (I now have a few late assignments, but it's minor). I'll be collecting reading journals from them on Thursday, but really, I can turn my attention now to getting through the backlog for the 102 classes--and beginning to mark their revisions. I also need to select a few more poems for 229: we're doing a little selection of traditional poems and chants (in translation, of course), and we got through almost everything I'd selected for the week. I'll bring in a few more and we'll just do them on the fly in class: no reading journals required, just to give us something to do. Heaven knows there are only about a zillion possible poems I could choose from to add to the selection. In a minute I'll sit down with the one anthology I have here and see if anything strikes me as particularly fun.

I'm doing my evening office hour now, but I'm also killing time until dance class tonight--which is why I'm still here, noodling around, instead of in the car on my way home. I want to shake this body up a little before I put it to bed, hoping that tonight I can sleep like I've been hit with a hammer. Tomorrow will be another busy day but should be a good one: some time in the morning to organize and chip away at assignments, then class, then observation of another faculty member (part of P&B business and always fascinating), then a meeting of Women's Studies--and then home again... and around we go.