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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Long weekend ahead

I'm choosing to believe that I will recover rapidly from the procedure tomorrow (if indeed I do go through a procedure tomorrow: I won't know for sure until I talk to the endodontist). Assuming rapid recovery, it will be good to have a long weekend ahead of me in which to churn through the first versions of student papers and the reading journals I've been collecting the last few days. I did get all the journals for today's class marked and back to them, so that's reduced the load a teeny bit. To balance it, however, are the papers I may still get from students who are submitting late (one of whom just dropped by the office to find out what to do in terms of submitting his paper late).

It's always hard to tell at this point whether students who don't show up for class are truly gone or just ducking this particular assignment. But even if they're trying to dodge the first paper, it won't help them. Not only will their grades take a hit, they then have to head into the next paper without the benefit of having been through the process and getting feedback from me. However, there's no way to head that particular problem off at the pass. Students who try this approach simply have to live the experience of it backfiring--and some have to have that negative experience on multiple occasions--before they'll learn that it is counterproductive.

The fear factor. It's extremely hard to address, and I need to learn to accept that there is little I can do about it. Students need to acquire a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, not merely to face difficult classes such as mine but also to get through life as high-functioning adults. If one wants to be booted around by the powers that be, then lack of backbone is not a concern. But if one wants any authority over one's own life, then spine and guts are required.

Poor Paul is dealing with the very first steps of the attempt to socialize the youngsters who arrive in our classes and to turn them into something approaching responsible students--not even necessarily adults (there is still a modicum of unreality that blesses those who are not solely responsible for their entire lives). As he describes the whining and complaining, the resistance to rules, that he's facing from one section in particular, I am overcome with gratitude that I'm not dealing with that this semester. My students have been socialized sufficiently that they may not like my rules, but their attempts to fuss their way out of them are half-hearted and quickly abandoned. (Notice, however, that many do still hope to fuss their way out of the rules. Eventually, they'll learn not to even try--but that will take a lot longer.)

On the other--and very happy--hand, I have a student in today's 102 who is terrific. I've mentioned him before, but we had another gratifying post-class discussion today. He's the one who was telling me how much easier it was to read War and Peace than to read The Sound and the Fury. When he read Le Guin's short story "Ile Forest," his responses were rich and wonderful--even though he got himself into an interpretation that is clearly not borne out by the story's "facts." Yet he wouldn't let go of it, straining to adapt the "facts" to fit his interpretation. I was delighted to see his originality of thought, but my comments to him said, essentially, "you have to learn to let go of a cool idea when the facts you're finding stop supporting it." I overheard him talking with another of my favorite students (the one returnee from last semester), making fun of himself about it, and admitting that I'd called him on the BS he'd been spouting. I laughed with them and said, "Yeah. Sometimes you have to let go." However, his real concern was with his other reading journal. The story (W. P. Kinsella's "Dance Me Outside") had seemed simple to him, so he didn't engage in much analysis--which I pointed out. After class, he was rather beating himself up about it, even called his work shoddy--too harsh an evaluation, I said--witness the fact that I gave him a B+ on the journal. It's an indication of his ambition, and I suppose his respect for my opinion, that he considered that somewhat a slap in the face. But the primary issue is, it wasn't bad work at all; he's simply capable of better. And he knew it. And he was glad to be called on it. That is a wonderful quality in a student.

And the other young man, the returnee from last semester, came in a moment ago to hand me a cleaner typed copy of his paper. He asked me to read a paragraph he's struggling with, and as I started to give him feedback, he realized he already knew the problems--and said he'd work on fixing them for the next version. Damn straight. He's got the right work ethic, that's for sure.

In a strange confluence of events, I have several students who are experiencing serious health problems, and they want to gut it out and get past the problems, get themselves turned around--and they're digging themselves into a hole they're going to have a hell of a hard time getting out of. I've told them they should consider an administrative withdrawal, which removes them from all their classes and wipes from their records any indication they even attempted the semester: it doesn't affect their GPAs or their academic standing. They don't, or won't, and although I sympathize with their desire to remain in school and get caught up, I truly don't have much faith that they can. And even if they do, their final grades will suffer unnecessarily. But again, that's a lesson that most of them have to learn the hard way.

I'm realizing today that even now, with first versions of first papers in hand, I still don't feel quite in the swing of this semester. Part of the bumpiness has been caused by the distraction of my own health (another reason I sympathize with how health problems can bollix up one's work). I'm not sure what else might factor in, but I suspect the deep, systemic changes I'm trying to affect in myself, regarding how I approach my life in general and my work in specific, are also playing a part. I seem always to be able to think more clearly about what I want to change, at least philosophically, between semesters, but when it comes to actually putting it into practice, things tend to get a lot more blurry. As I've said before, this semester is a grand experiment in trying at least a few different approaches to how I use my time, and it will be interesting to see what my time looks like when I'm hale and healthy--and fully engaged in the Advisement process.

Meanwhile, however, this is officially the start of my weekend. Please God, may I spend it not incapacitated with mouth pain.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Slightly less ick

I'm still not out of the woods toothwise, so my trip has been canceled. I'm not looking forward to the follow-up appointment on Wednesday, but I am glad I already set it up to be out that day, thinking I'd be flying to Montana. I also think it will ultimately be a good thing for my students: those in 102 get more time with me to work on their papers, and the short-story students get a one-day crash tutorial in paper writing basics. They bombed their first mini-papers big time--worse than usual, in fact. One student told me she was afraid to ask me for help, has a hard time writing papers--and she was not very happy about the fact that I wouldn't accept her paper well beyond the limit for submission of late papers. Another in a similar boat also wanted me to take her paper to read and comment on, even for no credit: I told her, "you're asking me to put in extra effort for your paper" and I'm not going to do it. But I did suggest a number of other avenues she--they--could pursue to get feedback.

It's interesting that this is coming up after a weekend in which I talked several times about a struggle within myself about how much I offer up to the students. The analogy I came up with is, it's as if I've been serving up an enormous, gorgeous feast, day after day, only to have them refuse to eat it (or tell me they prefer McDonalds, or something along those lines). But I've felt that offering the feast is the only way to get them to come in the door. I want to learn to say, in effect, "Look, I'll be in the kitchen. There's a ton of good food in there, and if you want, I can show you how to make a hell of a meal--but you have to come on in and ask." I've felt that I'd be left sitting in the kitchen all alone. I've also felt I'm suddenly withdrawing a motherly, nurturing kind of attention and sustenance and telling them to go feed themselves--and I like being able to be motherly and nurturing. (I'm sure students reading this must howl with laughter: that ferocious bitch, motherly and nurturing? She's MEAN!!) But I've felt a powerful urge to offer, offer, offer to my students, which is as close to motherly as I get.

So there I was, certainly not for the first time withholding comfort and not cushioning blows: "yeah, that hurt. So, here's what you can do next time so it won't hurt so badly...." But I felt very differently about what I was doing: no anger, no frustration, just a sense of agreement: yep, growing up, taking responsibility, all that stuff is hard. It doesn't feel good at first. But you can do it, go on little chickens, go figure it out on your own.

The one older student (and by older, in this case, I mean older than I am) is a real worry in that class. I checked her records: she passed 101 and 102 with Ds. I wish someone had had the guts to fail her: her paper was the most frightening thing I've seen turned in by one of my own students. I've seen attempts that bad from students who are taking placement exams--and they get placed into remediation. I told her she needs to contact me via e-mail and she told me (as if it were a surprise) that she doesn't know how to use e-mail. I told her she has to learn, and not just for my class. All kinds of crucial information comes through via e-mail, not on paper, and if she can't e-mail, she won't make it. She said she didn't have anyone to help her, and I said, "You have a whole campus full of people to help you. Go to one of the computer labs and get someone to show you how to work your e-mail." I know it's hard for her, and I know she's facing a ferocious learning curve, but I can tell you right now, there is no way on earth that she's going to make it in my class. She has way the hell too much to learn, too far to go, and she's trying to make excuses for why she shouldn't have to do what she needs to in order to learn it.

And she's an adult. I find it a lot harder to take it coming from her than from the "kids."

I have a feeling the attrition in that class is going to be pretty swift and severe. I booted a couple of people out today again for not having reading journals with them, so we ended up with 13 students in the room (26 are still registered for the class). The thing that's confusing me is that I don't always have the same bodies: there are a few regulars, but the remaining bunch haven't settled into a pattern I can distinguish.

Today's 102 was pretty good. A few students were missing (typical), but more were there than not. Again, two were there without their assignment, so they got booted out. One was pissed off about it, and was ready to make a bit of a fuss, but I wouldn't engage with him: I just nodded, "Yes, I know you're here and you want to stay," and waved him out the door. Those that remained did a good job--for the most part--helping each other out, and I think they're all grateful they get the extra day to work in class.

As I'm writing all this, I'm distracted by the awareness that I want to write some e-mails to students about the fact that I'll be holding classes next week, and to let the absentees know what they should do in the meanwhile. I realize it's mostly an empty gesture: most of those who were absent won't check their e-mail anyway. But if I've made the gesture at least, I've fulfilled my responsibility, and the rest is up to them. ("I'll be here in the kitchen...")

Two brief meetings with students, one before classes today, one after. Both went pretty well. The one after was with a sweet girl with mild autism (self-confessed); I'm not sure how much of what I said she's able to take in, but we'll see. She's already trying, learning, and that's all I can ask of anyone.

Seems like there was something else I wanted to blog about, but it's gone now. I've not yet done anything productive in Assessment: I hope I start seeing students soon. Today I should have spent the time marking assignments, but I'm too tired for that sort of shenanigans. It will be interesting to begin to see how this new method of going through papers with the comp students works out. I'll begin to dive into their papers tomorrow, I reckon, but now, time to fold tents and slip away into the night (so to speak).

Thursday, September 22, 2011


What an awful week--not having to do with work but with the rest of my life. The week started off with an emergency root canal for me and surgery for one of my cats. The cat is recovering nicely. I'm not bouncing back as well; at present I just hope madly that I'm infinitely better in the morning so I don't have to go in for further procedures. I thought I'd be infinitely better by now, so the fact that I'm not is upsetting, to say the least. Patience has never been my best thing, especially when I'm not comfortable.

In any event, because of the dental issues, I left immediately after class on Monday and was not on campus Tuesday or yesterday. I only came in today because I had just one class (plus a very brief spell in advisement), and the students in today's class needed to see me at least once before they begin the paper process next week.

At this point, I have no idea what comes next. I may cancel the trip to Montana, and if I do, that changes everything in terms of the syllabus (and requires a little running around to undo all the work I did to get approvals and subs so I could go). If I don't cancel the trip, I'm going to have a hell of a weekend getting prepped and ready. Tomorrow is the make-or-break day: I want to make a decision and have done with it, but I'd prefer not to make the decision when I still feel physically crappy.

Today's class was another good one. I really do like this group of students quite a bit. One of the adult women in the class came to see me just now for help with her paper: I expect she'll have a lot of trouble with it, but mostly she needs to be encouraged, at this point, the positives emphasized. And that's easy enough to do: she actually has pretty good ideas, she just is unused to thinking and working the way one must in college. I like it when I can legitimately give a student positive feedback, bolster some self-esteem that may be wobbly.

But I don't have the energy or focus at the moment to delve any further into what's going on with the students, or in my own psyche. We'll see what next week looks like.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Brief recap

Overall, a good week. Had a student come to my office hour again today, wanting to be sure he was doing his reading journal correctly (nice). Class went fine (whew). I'm interested in a phenomenon I noticed today, which I've observed before: when I ask students to read over a complicated assignment on their own and then come in with questions, they don't. I'm not sure if they don't read the assignment (possible) or if they just don't think they have any questions--until one brave soul asks something, and then suddenly, the floodgates open. We ended up using most of the period going over how to approach the assignment (which is still abstract, so, well, see yesterday's post), and then we went over a handout about theses and introductions.

I asked each group to explain a portion of the handout: it was interesting what was revealed about their understanding or, in some cases, lack thereof. I was a little worried about going over all that now, when I know they won't be writing for another week (most of them)--but I think at least a few heard my final piece of advice: "panic earlier." One student--the one who got the questions rolling by admitting she was completely confused--still feels completely confused, but she's planning on going to the Writing Center and on seeing me, so I hope between the two she gets an idea of what's required. A few others said they, too, were planning on adjusting the point at which they panic to an earlier date. I hope so.

The poor Monday-Wednesday class is really going to be crunched for time to go over all this and still adequately cover the stories they're reading for next week, but we'll do what we can.

I really wish I weren't going to Montana: I love seeing my family, and the conference will be interesting, but the stress of getting everything nailed down before I go is building exponentially as the trip approaches. And that now includes the fact that two people I'm mentoring (wearing my P&B hat), one going up for promotion, one for sabbatical, have asked for meetings with me before I leave....

But now, the temperature outside has plunged, the rain is starting, I have errands to run and have to take one of the cats to the vet, so my personal life takes precedence for at least a little bit.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

looooong week

It's the first full week of the semester, so although it's only Wednesday, it feels like I've been here for several millennia since Monday morning. My hours in the Advisement Center have been very slow, as I've not been doing any advising yet--but I still have to be there, fulfilling my contractual obligation. I'm sure the lack of frantic busyness there contributes to the feeling of drag on the week. Right now, snails would go zipping past, leaving me in the dust.

I spent at least part of my time in Advisement today marking reading journals for the Short Story class, until circuits started to fry and I had to stop and noodle around to recharge my brain batteries (to mix a metaphor). I realize I made the same tactical error with those students that I made with my 102 classes, but multiplied by a factor of X. I did talk to them about the focus of journals after they'd done their first ones, and allowed them to take those journals home to rework before submitting them. However, because students didn't actually see feedback on their own individual journals, their idea of what needed to be done in that reworking process was faulty. The journals evidence all the problems I see with the journals for 102--and now those students are working on their third journal, still haven't seen marks on the first two, and are no doubt perpetuating the same errors.


I'm stewing about what to do. Shall I let them revise all three? If so, I'm afraid they may get behind, which won't do them any favors. Should I let them revise only the one they're working on now? The two they've done could be considered their two "extra credit" assignments: if they complete the remaining 20 with good marks, the two I have in hand would only improve that portion of their final grade. They wouldn't then have latitude to miss an assignment or two and still get full credit--but I don't want them to miss any assignments, so that may be the way to go. I'll stir that around on the back burner over the weekend and see them on Monday with my decision.

But this reminds me of the importance of getting marked assignments back to students right away, so they can put my comments to use toward improvement--if they're so motivated. A lot of students don't change what they're doing no matter what comments (or grades) they get, but I want that to be entirely on them. If they haven't gotten feedback from me, then their lack of improvement is partly my fault. If they have the feedback, then it's up to them to use it or not.


I also wonder if I've already suffered an absurd shrinkage in the number of students in the Short Story class. The official roster has shrunk from 28 to 26--yet only 16 were in class today. Of the missing ten, I got e-mails from two saying they were sick. That leaves eight unaccounted for: gone just today, or gone for good? No telling. The dynamic in the room was different, having fewer bodies--and some of the more outspoken students were missing--but the discussion went well enough. I did spend a fair amount of time prepping them for their first mini-paper--which they will no doubt also bomb (as usually happens).

It's the "Ginger" effect. Remember, whatever I say translates effectively to "blah blah blah, Ginger." Paul and I have discussed this repeatedly. This is why we've both held individual conferences with students--even though I'm ditching that practice this semester. (I may return to it.) Students need to see how a principle or comment applies to their individual work: any instruction or set-up is too abstract for them to put to use. I perpetually attempt to find new and better ways to give them that direct understanding ("Look at what you've set up as a thesis. See why it does not work?"). And I perpetually try to give that understanding to them so they have it in hand when they do an assignment that has a big impact on their final grades. And even so, there is a conceptual barrier in their brains that I haven't figured out how to break through.

It's like last night in dance class. We were learning a new turn, and each time I attempted it, I'd crash (occasionally literally, crashing into my partner). The instructor explained to me what I was doing wrong, but it isn't in my body yet. I know it will get there, but I haven't "felt" what it is to do it right yet, and so I continue to do it wrong, even though I understand the principle in the abstract. Students have to "feel" the difference between the incorrect execution of a new (metaphoric) dance step and what it feels like to do it correctly. And, as is the case with me learning rumba, that takes practice.

If I had world enough and time.... In my dream universe, not only would I never have to quantify grades, I would have as much time as I needed with students to get them where they need to go. Much as I love the stuff that happens in class (when it flies, like yesterday's 102), when it comes to their writing, I'd rather tutor: individual sessions, no end point, no grades, just incremental and unending progress, at whatever pace the student requires and for however long.

Today's classes were not as gratifying as yesterday's. The Short Story class was fine but not scintillating; ditto the 102. In today's 102, the discussion was good, they were working through the wonderful indeterminacy of interpretation (is the character's final action his first sign of maturity or yet more evidence of his immaturity?--back and forth, back and forth), but they didn't spontaneously get to the meat of the matter the way yesterday's class did. I always find it interesting how from one class to the next, something shifts in my method of presentation (sometimes for the better, sometimes not, sometimes neither better nor worse just different)--and how much of that shift arises from the subtleties of class chemistry, that alchemy of personalities and critical mass, both of bodies and intelligence, that makes each section unique.

I expect I will kick some of this around with colleagues tonight. The Conviviality Committee is meeting at Applebee's for drinks and noshies prior to tonight's meeting of the Board of Trustees. (The Conviviality Committee started as a joke--my joke--as if invitations for members of the department to meet socially were an actual departmental function, but now it's a real committee, doing more substantive building of collegiality and departmental good will. I still find it amusing.) I'm not going to the BOT meeting, though I know how important it is for there to be a lot of bodies there, radiating anger and grim determination--but I am going to have a drink, encourage my colleagues who are going to be counted at BOT, and go to bed tonight in the satisfaction of knowing that tomorrow I have one class and it is, so far, my favorite. Nice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Slow learner...

I'm referring to myself in the title of today's post. How many years have I been teaching, and for how many of those have I been using reading journals? (Answer: "many.") And it just today struck me that I need to be even more specific with students about the purpose of reading journals. Yes, the journals help lead students to a deeper understanding of the literature, and yes, they are useful in helping students write their papers--but the key information is, whatever the student selects to ask about or comment on should be directly useful in a potential paper. Of course, right at the moment they may not understand what will (or won't) be useful, but if they're thinking, "How can I use this quotation to say something important about this reading?" then their thinking is moving in the right direction. I'm getting far too many responses like the "this is very descriptive" thing I ranted about yesterday, or in which a student asks a question about something in one paragraph and then finds the answer as he or she continues to read, or the "I know this is true because something like this happened to me" response, or or or....

So, I realize that I need to rework the instructions--again. They should be simplified anyway (my instructions illustrate the meaning of "verbose" and "prolix"), but now I have a better idea what the simplification needs to stress. I also realize that, in some previous reworking of instructions, I dropped the directive to read the entire work first, then do the journal from the passages one has highlighted--and I need to reinstate it. But when I do, I also need to explain "active reading." And still keep it brief and simple. Not my strong suit.

In any event, I'm allowing students to rework their second journals before they hand them in, now that they've gotten feedback--and a scary grade--on their first submissions. Some of them may still find the task beyond them, but I want to give them every chance to improve.

I do have journals yet to mark for tomorrow's 102, too, but I'm going to be hanging out here even after I finish blogging, making use of the time before dance class, so I'll get back to marking later--and can, if need be, finish up in the morning.

Oh, and as a follow-up to last night's postscript: the student I thought was being passive-aggressive was not, and I have issued him an apology for the harsh tone of my e-mail. He'd misunderstood when I said he should e-mail to be sure I got his journal. I meant he should drop it off in print and then e-mail to confirm I found it where he left it. He thought I meant he should e-mail it to be sure I got it. Simple miscommunication, now (I hope) resolved. He did write a very respectful response to my e-mail, so he's no longer in the dog house.

Today's class went beautifully. The students were making strong connections between the two stories they've read, had latched on to one of the main themes (the reason I paired the stories), were doing a wonderful job of bringing up evidence to support varying interpretations. Excessively cool. I was proud of myself that I found a way to encourage them away from "should" statements or "why" questions ("the boy's uncle should tell him not to smoke" or "why didn't the boy argue with the kids who wanted to rob him?"): I reminded them, repeatedly, to "reframe" those responses into ways of looking at what did happen to figure out what's important. So instead of what the uncle "should" do, let's figure out what his behavior shows us about the kind of man and uncle he is--and what the character's significance is to the overall story. And instead of asking why the kid did or didn't behave in a certain way, let's figure out the significance of how he behaves: why are his actions significant to the story as a whole?

I also realize that the focusing on the story as a whole also needs to be emphasized, and therefore that they need to read the entire story before they do their journals. For instance, one student did an amazingly beautiful, in-depth musing about a detail that is of only marginal significance--and lost the main thread of the story as a consequence. That's the other issue I keep looking to resolve: how to get students to have a sense of what matters and what doesn't. They'll focus on a dropped paper cup beside the road and miss the parade of elephants going by....

Well, but they're students, and they are here to learn, to be changed. As I keep telling them. And really, they did a beautiful job in class discussion. I was very happy that some of the more quiet students are already feeling free to jump into the discussion: more students contributed to the class conversation than not, which is unusual. The typical scenario (as we all know) is that several students dominate the conversation and the rest are mostly silent. There certainly were the dominant speakers--four of them--but even so, the majority of the others had plenty to say.

Getting back to individual students, there is one young man in today's 102 who is going to be a treat. He is a little older than the average (in fact, in general there are more "adult" students in my classes than usual: a sign of the economic hard times), and he is infinitely more adept as a reader. (I'm going to have to work with him on writing more clearly and simply: he's been trained in the Periphrastic School.) As he was leaving today, he talked about how both stories we've read reminded him of Faulkner (which I hadn't thought of before, but he's right), and he talked briefly, intelligently (and honestly), about reading The Sound and the Fury--then contrasted it with the relative ease of reading War and Peace (which isn't exactly Robert B. Parker but--at least in good translation--lacks the tangles of dependent clauses Faulkner employs). I know in part he was showing off for Teacher, but he didn't have the cocky, "look how smart I am" vibe that some students do when they engage in that kind of conversation with me. His main motivation seemed to be the desire to talk books with someone who also "gets" books. I don't need rooms full of students like that (though I wouldn't object, either), but having one now and then is sure nice.

Shifting back to pedagogy: One other thing I'm test-driving. I've decided to hand out the assignment sheet for the first big paper and let the students read over it on their own. They then will come to class with their own questions and requests for clarification, rather than my spending a lot of time reading and explaining the sheet to them. The Monday-Wednesday 102 students are more under the gun than the Tuesday-Thursday mob, because the M/W bunch had to read two stories for this week, and the T/Th students read one last week and one this. So the T/Th group got the assignment sheet today and we'll go over it on Thursday. The M/W won't get it until tomorrow, and we'll have to go over it, PLUS go over a whole new story on Monday. Crunch, but it's the only way I could get both classes on track to be ready to write at the same time. Well, we'll see how it all flies.

And that makes me realize that I have to spend some time this weekend getting the materials ready for the subs who will cover my classes while I'm in Montana at the beginning of October. And there's also that whole writing the paper I'm going to present thing, but I'm not panic-stricken enough yet to be impelled to do it. That will hit soon, but until it does, the back-burner is certainly busy.

Speaking of busy, I see that (weirdly enough) those reading journals for tomorrow have not marked themselves as I've been writing, so off I go....

Monday, September 12, 2011

Monday p.s.

I've got a student in one of my 102s who seems bent on challenging me in a (so far) passive-aggressive way. He had his reading journal on his laptop today. I allowed him to refer to that but told him to print a copy and leave it on my office door. I just checked my e-mail, and he'd e-mailed it to me--with nothing else in the message, not so much as a "Here's my journal"--and this after I'd made a point to say that I don't accept assignments via e-mail without the student having received prior permission.

He got a pretty stern reply from me. It will be interesting to see if he shapes up or if he's going to test me some more. His adjective for himself in my ice-breaker "name game" was "lazy." I was surprised, as I'd had him pegged as ambitious and highly intelligent. But he seems to want to prove that he is--or, really, that the rules don't apply to him. We'll see how long that lasts. If it's a pissing contest, I'll win, regardless of who has which set of genital equipment.

Attack of the "Shoulds"

I should stay here until 7, just to get into the habit of my evening office hours, even though we're not officially obligated to hold such hours until they are posted (which they are not, yet).

I should mark more student reading journals tonight so I don't start out with a backlog.

If I'm not going to mark more journals, I should do something else that's productive.

I'm not going to. I've had a few too many nights in a row of not enough sleep, and it's only Monday, and I already feel steamrollered, verging on a monster headache. I need to get a good night (or two, or three) of sufficient, deep sleep, and then I'll be swinging along just fine.

But before I flee for home and a horizontal position on the sofa, I want to do my usual end-of-day decompress and reframe.

As I'm marking journals, I find it is harder for me to give them letter grades than to give the check/check-plus/check-minus kind of mark. Numerically it comes out to the same thing, but just as students feel the weight of actual letter grades, so do I. Interesting that I hadn't considered my own reaction to that shift in procedure; interesting that I'm feeling such resistance to the whole idea.

I also find that I'm facing my usual push-me-pull-you waffling of whether to be bluntly honest about the work, or to be gentle at first and let the gloves come off later. Since the students have a couple of "extra" assignments (complicated math: don't ask), I'm inclined to be pretty brutal right up front. I may lose students over it, but I'd rather they get a clear indication, right away, what's really going to be required. I'm not going to let them inch their way into the water; I'm flinging them off the dock.

I also realize that my explanations, aloud and in writing, of what I'm looking for in terms of journals are pretty much equivalent to "blah blah blah, Ginger." (If you don't know Gary Larsen cartoons, never mind.) It seems they have to do a couple of journals and get slammed with the grades before they realize I wasn't kidding: they're going to have to change--and work hard.

Then there's the deep, visceral fury I feel when I see how many of them have been persuaded that meaningless responses are perfectly intelligent and desirable. I'm talking about responses like this one: "This paragraph is very descriptive, and paints a vivid picture of what was taking place." That's an actual quotation from a journal I just marked. I want to scream: What is being described, exactly? Why does the amount of description, the vividness of the "picture" matter? What was taking place--and how does the description affect our understanding of what was taking place? How does what was taking place affect our understanding of the story as a whole?

I could go on, but what drives me wild is that students legitimately believe that this kind of response contains some sort of analysis or insight. And they believe that it does, despite it's obvious lack of content, because for thirteen years, they've been taught to think like that--or rather, that such responses constitute thinking. Au contraire. When I read a response of this kind, it's as if someone pressed my "launch" button, and it's all I can do not to utterly go ballistic. I have no patience with it, however, and have gotten to the point where I say, "This is essentially meaningless." Then I ask a bunch of questions, like those above. And hope that the student doesn't cling like a limpet to that comfortable, familiar lack of meaning and substance.


But having to evaluate that kind of response leads me to realize I hate giving grades. I simply absolutely loathe having to put a definitive mark on anything. I want to comment, and I am perfectly willing to say "This is crap" or "There's something going on here you can salvage" or "This has real potential to be good"--and even sometimes "This is very good." But I hate having to quantify, to nail it down with a letter or number or mark. Man, I just effing HATE grades.

Ah well.

Shifting gears abruptly, I had my first orientation session in the Advisement Center. The head of Advisement had gotten my hours confused (and tried very hard to believe that I'd made the mistake, until he went back to the e-mails I'd sent and saw that, no, I was right--which at least he had the good grace to admit), so I ended up getting a private preliminary orientation. But I've worked in Advisement before (under an old contract, when we all were required to do it one semester every few years on top of our regular course loads). Some things have changed, but I was involved in the changes as they happened, so I'm pretty up to speed. I spent a good deal of my time there today watching one of the professionals help students with a variety of problems: impressive. And there was a brief interaction with an intensely snotty, angry, rude bitch of a student--who wants to get into our nursing program. In another life, I'd have taken her outside, essentially pinned her against a wall and told her in no uncertain terms to lose the fucking 'tude and I mean right fucking now or lose her head. The new improved (at least in this nanosecond) me just thought, something in her life is making her feel that the only way she can get what she wants is to be viciously toxic and nasty, and with any luck at all, eventually her approach will become manifestly counter-productive--and give her one hell of a huge bite in the ass.

Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

Enh. Whatever. I'm out of gas for tonight, so I'll head back in bright and early tomorrow and see what I can make of the new day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Good start

I didn't mention in yesterday's blog, but I was feeling some apprehension about the general faculty meeting scheduled for today, regarding the vote of no confidence in President Astrab. Although the Academic Senate already took such a vote (at an emergency meeting in June), it was resolved that the issue needed to be taken to the faculty as a whole in order for any such vote to have real heft. I knew heading into today's meeting that not all the faculty share my opinion of him as a waste of protoplasm, ahem, I mean, as an obstructionist and hostile head administrator, so I was prepared for more than a little contention. There really was none. A few people raised some kind of objection--one law professor clearly misunderstood the content of the resolution we were voting on and was concerned on legalistic/linguistic grounds; one person from admissions was concerned about how we'd be perceived by the wider community (I won't get into my reactions to that one, unless someone asks)--but for the most part, everyone who commented simply gave reasons why they thought the vote was warranted. The discussion ended early--amazing, since academics generally feel something hasn't been said properly until they've said it their own way--and the vote was taken. We've not seen the actual numbers, but 89% of those voting approved the "no confidence" decision. A good majority of us were there to vote, too, so although I'd have liked to see something closer to unanimity, it's a pretty clear message that we're well and truly angry. Some of my colleagues were beautifully succinct and appropriately sneering when they talked about Astrab. But now, of course, we don't know what happens next. The metaphoric ball is with the Board of Trustees, and we'll see what, if anything, they choose to do in response. Interesting times.

Coming out of the meeting was a nice feeling: "That went remarkably well." Then I got to my office to find a student waiting to talk to me about her reading journal. She was intensely confused about what needed to be done--and her level of confusion leaves me concerned about her ability to get her brains wrapped around the work. She had an adolescent daughter in tow, and her daughter was both eager to respond to my questions and apparently better equipped than her mother to think as a student. This is not terribly surprising. The daughter is a student, so she's tuned in to the process, whereas clearly Mom hasn't been a student in a long while, and she is freaking out about doing well. I believe at least part of her confusion was, in fact, the freak-out factor getting in the way of her understanding work that really isn't so complicated. In any event, I told her I'd accept her journal late, once we went over them in class and she got a better sense of what needs to be done. She ended up in a group with some smart cookies, so their calm acceptance and understanding of the work probably helped her more than anything I could say.

After she left my office, another student arrived, also with questions about assignments. His questions were simpler, his level of confusion less profound: I think he was just checking in to be sure he's on track.

But the main thing is, it's essentially the third day of classes, and I've already had three students make contact with me to get help--one of them (Mom), twice. That's unheard of in my experience, and speaks incredibly well for all of them.

Today's class was terrific, too. There were a couple of new bodies (two who registered late, slipping into openings left when others disappeared without ever being seen, and one who simply had been absent), but they seemed to fit in right away. We did the little name game that I've used as an ice-breaker for ages, and they played well together. When I put them in groups, they were really rolling: good observations, good thinking across the board. I was genuinely delighted, and told them so. (Nothing like positive reinforcement early on.) I know classes can shift as the semester progresses: what starts out as a cracker-jack bunch can fizzle, and vice versa. But if this group keeps on as they've begun, this will be a good class. Of course, their papers will also be a make-or-break proposition: students who groove like mad on the reading and class discussion can fall apart entirely when it comes to the challenge of writing papers, especially to the standards I demand. Well, it will be interesting to see how things transpire.

I collected their first reading journals today, and I briefly contemplated marking them before I head home tonight, but I won't. I'll leave them for Monday, when I start holding my evening office hours. Next week will be the first real week: no holiday, and committee meetings will be starting, including weekly sessions with P&B. Between that and my advisement schedule (which also starts next week), I'm going to be eating lunch on the run every day but Thursday. Well, it makes the days go quickly, when I am constantly on the move from the minute I head out of my office for my first class or meeting all the way through until the end of the day. I can tell already that my biggest challenge will be letting go when I get home, so I don't stay up all night jittering (as I did last night). I need to keep fed, hydrated, and, in the evenings, as rested as possible. The roller-coaster is leaving the platform....

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


I am perpetually astounded by how much I can find to do, and how endless the potential tasks are. It's only my second day back in the classroom, and already I could easily stay here in the office, doing productive work, until well into the night. I could review the readings I've assigned to students for the next few days; double-check some upcoming handouts, revise them if necessary, proof and print them if they're good to go; review materials prior to next Tuesday's initial P&B meeting; combine syllabi into one master document for easy at-home reference ("what do I need to be ready with today? Can I cancel class?") ; organize grade records and student info from previous semesters; clean out and organize my office bookshelves; send readings that need to be photocopied for future assignments off to the copy center...

And that's just the stuff that springs immediately to mind, having to do with work here on campus. I also need to work on the paper I'll be presenting in a few weeks at a conference in Montana, and would like to work on the book proposal for the student edition of a Le Guin novel that I'd like to put together...

... that list goes on beyond zebra, too.

What have I done? I taught my classes (natch); finished the work I was doing for Bruce (which did turn out to be easy, once I took it a piece at a time--or at least it was easy if I did it correctly); met with a student (yes, they're already coming to me with questions and problems--a good sign); sent a letter to a student who got an incomplete last semester and hasn't been seen or heard from since (she's a potential A student, so I'm giving her every chance to come through on that, instead of getting the C she actually earned); made photocopies that I ran low on for the Short Story class, and now, wrote in this blog.

What I will do next is re-read the story my students will be discussing tomorrow (I probably won't be able to keep that up all semester, but it's always good when the material is fresh in my head), and then head off for dinner with Paul.

And we all know what tomorrow is, right, Scarlett?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Apres moi...

... le deluge. Just thought I'd say that because it's very rainy today--but my first batch of students may be feeling a bit under water right now, too.

I'm having a strangely difficult time transitioning to the fact that the new semester has begun. This is partly because I was all set for it to start last week--and then, because of the hurricane, I was offered a monster inducement to give up my seat on the flight home, and ended up staying on the West Coast until Sunday, five extra days (and it was bliss). I spent all day yesterday trying to wrap my brains around the fact that I'm back on this coast, would be coming back to work, but it hasn't been entirely successful. I expect by the end of next week, it'll all feel familiar again. Sigh.

Today's batch of students, the first I've met this term, seemed like the usual mixed bag. The lights were definitely on in some faces, definitely not in others, and most it's hard to tell just yet. My dog-and-pony show was a little different from usual; I've gotten bored with my own jokes, and have decided to begin as I mean to go on, by telling them to do more on their own. We got through the first day hand-outs, though I more frequently said "Go over this on your own," and they were asking good questions--for the most part.

I'm very worried about one young woman, who came up to me after class and asked me about the reading journal form and assignment. She was deeply confused, didn't seem to understand that where the syllabus says "writing due: reading journal on X," that meant the reading journal form I'd just gone over. Her lack of comprehension was pretty profound, demonstrating a real disconnect somewhere. She said she is trying to get herself set up with a counselor in the Center for Students with Disabilities but her doctor is confused about what kind of documentation CSD needs. (My hunch is, if he's confused, it's because the student isn't explaining it very well.) Apparently she grew up in an institutional setting of some kind, and is now being "mainstreamed." I'm not very good at dealing with students like that, I confess. I was very patient with her in terms of explaining (again) what was required for next class, but I know I won't be very good about adjusting my teaching style to try to reach her if she can't keep up. And these early signs are not promising.

On the other hand, as a great delight to me, one student in that section is a returnee from last semester. Smart as he is, and as wonderful as he was in class discussions, he only managed to squeak out a D last term, so he decided to take the class from me again. It will be very interesting to see how he feels about the paper-writing process I'm test-driving this semester, as he can compare two different pedagogical approaches from the same professor. His feedback at the end of the semester will be most helpful.

I'm trying out a lot of new stuff, in fact. When I was in Washington, I talked with Ed and Gary about an idea I had, which I tried out today. It won't bear fruit right away (if at all), but I decided not only to tell students a little about my teaching philosophy--that I don't come in with a prepared set of points to go over but expect them to come up with the approach to anything we read--but also to give them a talk about a deeper stance I have about education. I told them that being in college will change them. They can either do the work simply to get the superficial skills that will help them in the job world, which is one kind of change, or they can use college to begin a journey that will take them into a deeper, richer interior life than they have imagined possible--which is quite another kind of change. But they cannot expect to go to college and not be changed, one way or another. So if they feel like they don't want to change anything about themselves, then perhaps this isn't the right time for them to be in college. And whichever kind of change they go for, they are going to have to work hard, and may find themselves resisting the changes they'll need to make.

I'm not sure what prompted all that in me, but I suspect it's because I'm going through a period of deep change of my own, in which my psyche is getting reorganized and I feel a whole different sense of what matters to me, in my personal and professional lives. It's a hard change to talk about, but it makes me want to tell the students a different kind of truth than I've told them before. I wonder who actually heard what I was saying--or what they thought they heard. I saw a lot of heads nodding (and not with impending sleep); I saw some resistance on a few faces--but mostly just focused attention. They were listening, at least, even if they didn't really understand.

But I do intend to refer back to that talk as the semester goes along, especially when we get into the nitty-gritty of revising written work. I intend to remind them that change is hard but necessary: that they cannot write as they always have and expect it to be good enough.

Well, it's a big ole experiment. We'll see how it all flies.

I have some work to do for Bruce tomorrow and Thursday, putting together numbers regarding the "retention pool" of adjuncts. I don't really understand what I'm supposed to do just yet (never mind what a "retention pool" is), but I just need to sit down and do it, hoping it comes clear as I chip away at it, following the instructions. I can always ask Bruce if I remain confused, but I'm glad I can help him with this task, since I left him so badly in the lurch when I flew the coop before the adjuncts were all scheduled and staffing nailed down. He said that the chaos wasn't too awful after I left, but still: I know I owe him, big time--and I know he'll make sure he gets paid back everything I owe. One nice thing on that front: I don't have to put in quite as many hours in the evenings as I'd thought. I won't have to rush off to dance class on Tuesdays but will have a little time after the close of that evening office hour before I have to head to the studio. Cool beans.

That said, however, I'm not going to dance tonight. I haven't gotten on a normalized sleep schedule yet, and I'm afraid if I'm out late (as I tend to be when I go to class), I'll perpetuate the late-to-bed cycle that I'm trying to break. So as soon as I'm finished blogging and have done a little organizational noodling to prep for tomorrow morning, I'll head for the hills. Here's hoping for an easy glide into early slumber, so that morning alarm isn't too alarming.