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


Hi! And you are...?

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






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Monday, October 31, 2011

Whee-hawken!

(Title is a Pogo reference. If you don't know Pogo, you should.)

I've actually been advising today, which is great, as the time has gone much more quickly than usual, but of course I was really hoping I'd have time to grade papers. I've promised my short story class that I'll have their papers back to them by Wednesday--and I've not started marking yet. Yikes, and likewise zoiks. But I will say that grading their papers is a hellova lot easier than marking papers for the comp sections, as I don't have to be as detailed about the mechanics of writing in my feedback. Their papers are not necessarily any better--in fact, often worse--but I can simply say "You need to get help on this" without being the person to help. There also aren't many of them left. There were 13 in class today; one more may still be hanging on by the skin of his teeth, but really, I think I'm down to 12 in that class, when all is said and done.

That's more than 50% attrition. But I hasten to say that I'm not alone in that category. Many of my colleagues have the same experience: it seems to be a common occurrence at any community college. In fact, I recall, when I was at La Guardia, we had a column on our final grade rosters for last date of attendance, and students who simply stopped coming prior to a specific cut off date were considered to have withdrawn.

So far, I'm hanging on to more of my students in the comp sections. Of course, they haven't embarked on The Left Hand of Darkness yet, and the process of reading that novel can be the hurdle that some of them simply cannot get over. The problem is partly that some simply cannot make sense of a world so strange and unfamiliar--or make sense of the sophistication of Le Guin's prose. But part of the problem is simply that some of them have never had to sustain awareness of anything for that length of time: reading a novel (I am realizing for the first time) requires being able to keep characters, places, plot points in one's mind over an extended period of time--days, weeks, months. Many of them have never had to keep something in mind anywhere near that long. Even in a class, in which certain information must be retained, students can return to notes or a text-book and continually refresh their memories. With a novel, one cannot perpetually start from the beginning and reread up to the current point in the narrative.

Last night, as I was thinking about it, I was half tempted to tell my Tuesday/Thursday class that they can skip the chapters that do not deal directly with the narrative. (Le Guin intersperses "hearth tales," ethnographic reports, myths and legends, with the "actual" story.) The only reason to do that is because I only see them once next week, and I'm worried about how much we can cover in that one class so they feel confident moving on. The other option is to postpone their proposals by a day--but then that puts them in a crunch in terms of their final papers.

I just now thought, maybe I could hold a study session outside of class, open to any student who can make it. I rather like that idea, actually. I'll take a look at my schedule and see when I have any time next week (other than Tuesday: for a split second I thought, "Oh, I could do it on Tuesday, which follows a Friday schedule" but then my saner mind intervened and said, "No, dammit, I need the day off.") Hmmmm.

Today's 102 went well: students were getting the hang of what they need to do. One student is going to be disappointed, however. I'm very happy with her new thesis; she's done good work--but she thinks she has a shot at an A, and I'm afraid she doesn't. I don't know how to make students understand that "very good" is not the same as "excellent," and only excellence earns an A--from this professor, anyway. To a certain extent, A's are born, not made: there is a certain kind of intelligence that has to be innate in order for a student to break that barrier. Notice I say a kind of intelligence, not an amount: students can be utterly brilliant in some areas and simply not be wired for certain kinds of thinking or expression. I have a pretty damned good brain, but no matter how hard I might try, there are certain levels of math (or physics, or who knows what else) that would always be opaque to me: I'd never be able to crack into the higher echelons. I know the stakes are different when one is an undergraduate--the ambitious ones are still trying to become straight A students--but not everyone has a brain that can do equally well in all areas.

As I was writing that, I had a moment of panic--and I was right to. I suddenly thought, "Did I have any observations this week?" And I did: today. I missed it. I just was on automatic pilot and came right over to Advisement like I always do, and completely forgot until just now that I was supposed to observe a colleague at 2:00. I just sent her an e-mail, apologizing all over the place, but now I have to reschedule that observation, dammit. And suddenly I'm thinking about all the other things I have to do: not just grade those papers, but look at promotion folders and write letters of recommendation, and write up last week's observations, and and and.

Shit. I mean it. Shit. But oh well. What can I do but keep on doing? I was going to cancel my evening office hour tonight, but no: I'm going to stay in the office and get as much work done as I can before the roof caves in.

I feel so unbearably stupid about missing that observation. I wonder how long I'll kick myself about that? Damn and blast and hell and oh well, but... repeat ad infinitum.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

P.S.

I want to be sure to make note of this: As I was getting ready to leave Advisement, I was told I had a phone call. It was a student, to my surprise. He said he had meant to say something when he'd seen me earlier, hadn't, and wanted to be sure to talk to me about some issue. He started to tell me about his math professor, how he'd taken a test more than two weeks before and hadn't gotten the grades back until just now. I was expecting him to ask me if this was something he could lodge a complaint about, or how he could express his unhappiness about that to his professor--but no. He said, "That professor took two and a half weeks to return test grades, and you returned our graded papers in two days. That is evidence of how much you care." If you are reading this, my student, thank you. Truly and sincerely, thank you.

I don't know if students understand how seldom we receive any recognition from them--not so much about the work we do (this is, after all, my job) but about the fact that we care. OK, not all of us, but most of us. We truly, deeply care about our students and their success. It seems that most students don't think of their professors as actual human beings, and insofar as they do think about our motivations, they seem to believe that our only raison d'etre is to torture them. What a bunch of sadists we are--or at best, utterly without feelings of any kind. So to have a student recognize the emotional commitment that goes into the work is manna indeed.

I'm marginally incoherent about this (long day at the end of a long week, and my brains are starting to seize up), but truly, that was a sterling moment, one I will treasure and hold on to, polish with repeated remembering over not only months but probably the rest of my career. And that came on top of a comment overheard in class today. Students were practically bleeding out their ears from the effort they were putting into their revisions, they were working alone as well as checking in with classmates, and calling me over to ask questions--and I overheard a student--I'm not even sure who, just a female voice--say "I love this class." That, when she is being put through a mangle. That's praise, too.

And that's the sweet taste I carry in my mouth as I leave campus this week. I have a bag full of more papers to mark (my poor short story students have been getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop for over a week; it's time now to put my attention into getting work back to them), but the immediate searing pressure is off, and I take home that manna, that nectar of praise. Heavenly days.

Brief week in review

I have about ten minutes before I have to go to an observation--after which I am blasting out of here as fast as I can go. But even though I said I wouldn't blog this week, I just have to say how much I'm liking this process of revision. It still needs tweaking, here and there, but I think it works better than anything I've tried. I think the two days in class of working on version two are especially useful. Both yesterday and today, being in class was a little like being pulled apart by hungry beasts, as each student wanted more more more of my time. But it was great to be able to circulate around the room and answer specific questions, point out problems, ask more questions for them to work on, cajole, push, encourage, praise, tease--and in one case, damned near fight.

That one case was in yesterday's class. The student was fighting me tooth and nail about my comments. That cycle from "But I did that!" (no, you didn't) to "You're telling me not to..." (no, I'm telling you that you must--but you didn't) to "How can I when you tell me I'm not allowed to..." (no, I'm telling you not to do X but to do Y instead). Among the specific issues: the student kept referring to the poet and her life and her thoughts and not talking about the poetry. When I said she needed to focus on the poetry, the student said, "But how can I talk about that if I can't mention the poet?" and "What, I'm supposed to act like I wrote the poem?" She was being willfully dense, because she doesn't want to have to change her paper--or how she thinks. I kept saying to her, "Don't fight me on this"--and even then she said, "I'm not fighting you!"

Breathe, Tonia; breathe.

In yesterday's class, two of the students there didn't ask me a single question. Those two are not by any stretch the strongest writers in the class. A few more only asked one or two questions. Ditto. The best writers are generally the ones who have the most questions about what to do, how to improve.

Today, the only students who didn't ask questions were the ones who hadn't turned in their first versions on Tuesday and so who don't yet have any feedback from me. (Again, not the best writers in the class.) Everyone else wanted my time--lots of it, more than I had to give. Which is why I'm glad we're doing this again next week. I hope that they work on trying to address my comments over the weekend so they can run changes by me to see if they're effective. But we'll see.

The short story class is pulling together nicely as well. I shuffled the groups a little yesterday, and they did very well together in the new configurations. Nice.

That's about it. I may have to see another student right now; if so I hope I can hustle him out of here pretty quickly so I can get to my observation on time. If not, I'll be out of here in five minutes....

And up this post goes, unrevised, unproofed, unexamined--raw from the keyboard.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hiaitus

No blog posts this week. Paper grading, observations, madness ensue. I'll be back on board next week, good lord willin' and the crick don't rise.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Breathless

Anxiety? Exhaustion? Both probably. I actually, literally have felt breathless most of the day today--and I've been on the run, so it's not terribly surprising. This is the first moment I've had since 9:00 this morning to sit still and not be working (or going to and from routine doctors' appointments). I even ate my lunch while I was marking student assignments. I was chasing dropped pearls all over hell and gone all damned day.

(For those of you new to the blog, the pearls reference comes from my ex, who described working with a harried and disorganized director as standing next to someone whose strand of pearls has just broken. That image of someone standing in a helpless panic while pearls fall to the floor, bouncing in all directions and rolling off into mysterious places and dropping through the cracks, feels perilously apt at times. Like now.)

I do have to bitch a little. I encountered a few of my least favorite things today.

1) Students who whine about continually getting low grades without ever coming to me to understand what they can do to improve--and then who jump on me at the end of class as if I can solve the problem for them in 35 seconds or less. Make an appointment to come see me, dammit. Take a little fucking initiative to learn something.

2) Students who say, "It was a short poem, so there wasn't anything to say about it." Same student, frequently, as the one who is whining about the reading journals. (That was the case today.)

3) Students who come to class and promptly fall asleep--and then, when I say, "Clearly you're not really here today, so you should go home," say, "I was listening!"

4) Students who say, "So if I get C's all semester long, at the end I'll get like a B-, right?"

5) Colleagues who either do not check or do not bother to respond to e-mail. Or official notices left in mailboxes. Who must be called, individually, to confirm, say, an observation time.

OK. Now that that's out of my system, here's a list of things I like:

1) Having a lot of students want to see me, talk to me, after class. Sometimes I have to shoo them away (because I have to get here, for instance), but I love knowing they're reaching out--even the ones who are whining and have yet to set up an appointment to see me. And some were there just because they didn't want to let go of the class, the contact, the chance to learn. So cool.

2) Saying to a class "We're out of time," and seeing them look up, startled: "Really? Already?" It's happened at least twice with this T/Th 102, and it happens because they're so willing to dive fully into the work.

3) Classes like today's, in which I got even more helpful feedback on this process of draft and revision that I'm trying out. I will be frazzled next week, getting papers marked and back to the students in such a quick turn around (and with observations to tend to as well), but then they'll have to do the heavy lifting for a week and I can tend to other business (like writing up those observations and doing more).

4) Getting a schedule with two (!!) electives and knowing I can ditch one section of comp because I'll be here in Advisement. If both electives run (a gargantuan "if"), I will be teaching Nature in Lit, Native American Lit, and one section of 102. And that would be utter bliss. This is the one and only case in which I don't mind having three different preps.

I do have to remember to alert Bruce and Allen that if, for some reason, Nature in Lit doesn't run, I don't want another class at that hour. (I hate that particular section: 9:30 on Monday and 10 on Thursday. Ick.) If that happens, Id rather reclaim the 102 I'm throwing back into the pool. Doing so would necessitate a shift in when I'd work in Advisement, but that I can wiggle around until it fits well enough. Note to self.

I'm going to buzz out of here the second my Advisement time is up, so I can drive homeward and drop my car off in the shop tonight instead of having to get up early in the morning to take it in. I feel unduly frantic, knowing I won't be going back to the office to decompress for a while, even though I'm pretty sure I packed up everything I might need for the weekend. I actually am--I think--pretty much on top of things. I keep getting e-mails about stuff I need to do for ASLE: I don't need to do them immediately, but just the fact that the bits and pieces keep getting added to the pile adds to my feeling of flurry and anxiety. Still, I hope I can leave that frantic feeling here on campus when I go. Looking at things objectively, it's poised to be a fine weekend: ride tomorrow (with former student now cat sitter), dinner with a good friend on Saturday, some work to do but nothing horrific. And if I don't get it all done, it will just mean a little extra spill-over into the first of November but not a catastrophe.

So breathe, Payne, breathe. And let go.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Collaboration

As planned, I talked to the students in today's class about the paper process. I had to get them past some complaining about the grades being "unfair," but I explained why their revisions didn't necessarily get a higher grade, rather than confronting--or even trying to defuse--their upset. In fact, I made a point of saying that I understood their frustration, not only because what I'm asking is hard but also because clearly there had been a break down in communication about how I intended the system to work.

The conversation was enlightening. Apparently, I need to do more to emphasize that I am, in effect, evaluating the final version as demonstrating a completely different skill set than the first one. I hate to say it, but this may be one of those times when the use of edu-speak may be beneficial. If I clearly delineate the "goal" and "outcome" of each part of the assignment, that may help students understand that they're learning more than one thing.

Their suggestions about what might help them were good, too. They asked for an example of a student paper that showed improvement in revision--and fortunately, I think I have just such an example. I came very close to tossing the examples last week: this is one of those instances when Fate intervenes. Years ago, for a departmental colloquium on teaching revision, I'd gathered examples of papers in first version and revision, some good, some terrible. I photocopied many more than I needed for the colloquium, and for some reason (the term "pack rat" springs to mind), I've held on to them. All I have to do is look through to find an example showing improvement across the two submissions, make enough copies, and Bob's your uncle. (I love that expression. I just spent a minute doing a down and dirty Google search about it, and the third hit seems to have the best explanation of how the expression arose: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bobs-your-uncle.html)

Returning, however, to the actual pedagogical issue at hand, the other suggestion from the students of what could help them was a request for a sample of an A paper. I've had a example for a long while--since I was at La Guardia, in fact--but I need to re-evaluate it to be sure I still am happy with it. If not, I could ask the one student this semester (so far) who wrote an A paper if he'd be willing to submit his--or I might cheat a little and rework the sample I have. (For instance, I was more forgiving in the old days about students beginning with big generalizations, and if I remember the introductory paragraph correctly, it starts precisely in that manner. That would need to be tinkered with so it doesn't confuse my students now.)

Ultimately, they decided, rightly, that they need most time getting from version two to their final papers. That is where things broke down--and its where there is the most grade weight. The breakdown occurred because (as we determined) they do not understand what to do to effectively address my comments. They want to; they thought they were, in fact--and then when they saw my comments on their final papers, they realized their attempts fell short. My end of the process is still going to be high stress (happy birthday, Tonia): I've promised to get them feedback on their first versions by the end of the week. Even if I keep my comments to a minimum, that's a big ouch for me--but then they can work to address my comments over the weekend, and can bring those changes to class, so I can help them see if the changes do what is needed. The in-class part of the process will be a little unwieldy, but it's the only way I can think to help them with that task. So the schedule has been adjusted to give them an extra few days when they need it most.

I warned them that this schedule change means they'll have a big chunk of reading to do over that following weekend: we'll start reading the novel in class, but they'll have to get through the first seven chapters between Wednesday and Monday. (I really want them to get to chapter 7, even though it's a lot of pages, because there is crucial information that is clarified at that point.) They may not realize what they're getting into--most students find the book a lot harder than anything they've experienced--but their primary concern is doing better on those papers. And they're right: that's the priority right now. We can make sense of the novel later.

I also told them that, because of the confusions and problems, whatever their best grade was in that first paper process--whether it was on version 1, 2, or 3--they'd get the same grade for all three versions. It's a one-time only offer, but I saw faces and bodies relax significantly when I told them I'd do that. The decision may come back to bite me--it may hyper-inflate some grades--but I don't think so. I think their next papers, reading journals, and final papers will normalize the curve for each of them. I hope anyway.

There were 15 in class today, and I think that's pretty much who's left at this point. One of today's absentees may return, but probably not the other, and there was one withdrawal today. My main objective at this point is to help those 15 feel like they're actually making progress, instead of being engaged in an exercise in futility. I was blaming them for that (witness my snarky comments about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results), but I truly forget that they do the same thing over and over because they honestly do not know what else to do. They need to learn how to do something different, and they have no models yet for what that looks like.

Speaking of models, I did have them outline the critical essays they'd read for today: each group worked on one essay. Then we talked about what they learned from the process. One thing they stated--I thought I'd have to drag it out of them, but it was the first comment--is that they could see the logic of the critic's argument much more clearly when they outlined it. I told them--and reiterated--that this is what I want them to do with their own "after-the-fact" outlines of their papers, and for the same reason. The outline process helps them approach their work objectively and will reveal places where the point of proof in a paragraph is unclear, or where the logical order needs work. The other thing they noticed is that they understood the critic's argument more clearly overall--so I pointed out that this is a technique they can use to understand anything they read: a business proposal, a newspaper article, a textbook, anything. (Oh, wow, who knew an English class about literature could apply to other parts of one's life?)

I also realized that next week I need to talk to them about citing electronic sources. Oh, God, another hurdle for them, when they're still struggling to clear the old ones. Well, this is how learning works: we keep getting pushed to the next level, often before we feel ready--but then somehow the previous level starts to feel easy (if we're lucky; if we're actually learning).

I feel very good about the whole experience. This is one of those rare and wonderful days when I have no quarrels with myself as an educator. It will be interesting to see how the same conversation plays out with tomorrow's class. Of course, it won't be exactly the same conversation: they are a different group, plus I will be honest with them and tell them what I talked about with today's students. I may push a bit to make the same adjustments with them as I did with today's students (same schedule, same grading), just because the uniformity is easier for me (there are enough difficult variables as it is). But ultimately, if they have a radically different perception of what they need, I want to be open to making the adjustments that work for them. I doubt it, though: I suspect their experience, and their needs, are very similar.

The short story class went well, too. They read Leslie Marmon Silko's "Yellow Woman," which is lovely but somewhat strange and potentially confusing, as it assumes a certain familiarity with Native American, specifically Puebloan, stories and culture. But they did a good job with it. And I had two great teaching moments in that class, too. One student was telling me how much he hated the story and hated the character. I said, "I don't care. I don't care. What do I care about?" He didn't want to let go of it, but he finally conceded that the issue was that he was confused by the character: ah hah! So your job is to look for all the evidence you can find in the story that will show why you are confused. Fifteen minutes later, he said, "Oh! I get it now!" He admitted that his emotional reaction had kept him from understanding why the character seemed to vacillate, but once he looked at it objectively, there was the reason, right there.

The other moment was with a young woman who had read the story but whose reading journal was blank. She said she didn't understand any of it. So ask questions, I said. She confessed to being afraid of feeling stupid. First, I said, you are not the only one struggling with this: everyone is. Second, even if everyone else gets it and you don't, whose education do you care about? (Point taken.) I reassured her that her questions are good, and I said that she'll get better marks on reading journals for asking good questions than by pretending to have an analysis that misses the details. She and I talked again at the end of class, and one of the more confident and capable students was hanging out, overhearing the conversation. He made a suggestion about how he approaches his journals--wanting to help her out--and I suggested that they join up with some of the other students in the class to form a study group, work on their journals together. He sort of took her under his wing as they left the class (almost literally: he's tall and muscular; she's average height and willowy): I'll be very interested to see what, if anything, comes of that. I hope they do form a study group. The class is starting, slowly, to develop an interesting chemistry, and I think such a group would augment that, as well as giving the students a sense of security in tackling difficult work.

Oh, and Mr. Determined did his best journal ever. A nice, solid B. Oh, they're learning, they're learning. Please let me remember that when I grade their next papers, when they start to fall apart again as the pressures of the semester mount. They are learning. Thank all the gods at once.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sufficient unto the day

I got online an hour ago thinking I'd check e-mail quickly before blogging. I've spent the last hour responding to colleagues and students about pressing issues. Among them, I had to respond to a request for a meeting from a student who received a harsh (possibly too harsh) comment about his lack of revision and who is now feeling physically ill with self-castigation.

I know this young man: he was in my 102 last semester, and is retaking the course, specifically from me, because he truly wants to learn--and to prove to himself, as he said, that he can do what I am asking of him. I know, therefore, that he is genuinely and deeply distressed about his paper, and I am not happy with myself for my choice in how to comment. I did want to light a fire under his ass; I did not want to actually hurt him, and I think I did. This is a lesson in learning to question rather than to assume a stance from the student. Mr. Trying Again did not intend to be dismissive of my comments nor was he being arrogant--nor lazy--about his work. However, this is a situation in which he is having to recognize the difficulty of genuine change. He said he didn't see anything that needed revising, which makes me wonder how he understood my comments on his paper. I need to figure out what broke down between what I thought was a clear directive about work that needed to be done and his equally clear (to him) sense that nothing more was needed. Somehow what I thought I said and what he thought he heard didn't connect. I need to figure out why not.

I confess, this is part of my job that I find emotionally dicey but equally fascinating: I want to understand how students' minds function, what they see and how, where their blockages are and where they understand things clearly. I also need to continually refine my awareness of how my own assumptions: they do not see language, ideas, processes the way I do, and vice versa. Trying to figure out how to present the material to them in ways that they can more readily apprehend is something between a linguistic exercise and psychology. Probably with a little sociology thrown in, too. Fascinating but extraordinarily difficult. And when I make an error, it is upsetting for the student and, frequently, for me, too.

I need to meet with another student from that class: I'm struggling with what to give her for a grade on her paper. She truly worked hard on revising, did not stint one iota on the process--and the ultimate product is a bit of a mess. She has good ideas, but they are very confusingly presented. If I had gotten the paper cold, not having seen any of her process, I would mark it as a C. But I gave her a B- for her first version, so I don't want to, in effect, punish her for doing what I directed her to do. I want to explain my dilemma to her: I find that often, when I talk it out with the student, my own options become more clear, and I am able to find a solution that I can't come to by thinking it through on my own.

I wonder if students are aware how much they are my collaborators in my ever-evolving pedagogy. Probably not. But I sure am. I'm in a perpetual feedback loop: try this, take their responses and work as a reflection of how well the attempt worked, adjust, try again, and repeat ad infinitum. (Which reminds me: I had a realization about a problem with my wording of the mini-paper assignments for the short story class, where my core assumption was not conveyed in words--and is radically different from their core assumption. Rewording the assignment is among my tasks for next semester.)

Shifting gears, I'm not entirely pleased with how I cranked the class through the poetry today. I did too much heavy directing of my own, rather than allowing them more time to wrestle on their own (and employing far too little Socratic method)--but on the other hand, I wanted to be sure we covered all the poems so we can move on to the last critical essays and get them working on their papers ASAP. I will say, they did good work; they're just a great class, and I love working with them even with crap pedagogy. There was one potentially tense moment, when one student teased another and got told off in no uncertain terms; I didn't make a big deal of it, but I need to keep an eye on them to make sure that the ruffled feathers get smoothed down. The interaction was between two of the students in that lovely group of four, so I'm particularly protective of their interrelationships, as I love how they've worked together so far.

Returning to their papers and the need to get them ready to write, I've been doing some rethinking on that score. I need to talk to tomorrow's class about the process they've just been through and ask them where they need the most time. I know I need much more time--about five times as long--to revise as I do to draft in the first place, so that's how I've set up the assignment schedule. However, I think it's possible they need more time to do the first version, that getting words on the page in the first place is much more difficult and time-consuming for them. Of course, that's partly because they don't know how to revise--and I'm deeply committed to teaching them revision processes this semester. But I'm motivated to re-evaluate their needs, specifically in regard to time, in part because I am considering shifting due dates. If I do, it will be mostly to take some pressure off myself (I just heard Ed cheer, I think)--but obviously they are not helped if they are rushed and panicked. We can't adjust things very far, but there's no reason why the schedule can't shift by one class. I'm just not sure which parts to shift, and what to do with the class time attendant on such an adjustment. Indeed, I may not make the change at all--unless I can figure out how to do it productively for all concerned. But it's worth exploring possibilities.

But again, I need my collaborators. And I realize I don't have to follow the same schedule for both classes: if I get different feedback from the two sections, I can adjust each one individually. I will know more once I've talked to them, but I also need to look carefully at the days/dates and see what works for me and my life.

I have a small stack of reading journals I want to get done before tomorrow's classes, so I've made myself unavailable to students tomorrow morning (even unavailable to Trying Again, though he specifically asked for a time tomorrow in the a.m.). I wasn't sure I'd get any done at all before packing it in for tonight, but I got at least some knocked over, so the morning shouldn't be too horrific. I'll determine the alarm time later, when I also have a sense of how early I'll manage to get to bed. I'm running short on sleep this week, being awakened even before the early alarm by those squirrel stampedes, and I'm getting to a point in my life where I can't go too long insufficiently rested and still be productive. (Jesus, I hate saying that, but it's what my father would have called a true fact: I simply am not as young as I once was. None of us are, of course, but what I mean by "young" gets older all the time. Now I miss the stamina I had when I was in my 40s, for fuck's sake, never mind my 30s or 20s.)

But that sleep thing will not happen if I'm here too late. I didn't leave campus until almost 8 last night, so it's not surprising I didn't get to bed until after midnight: I need a long, long, long glide path to come in for a landing. That said, my faithful readers, I am outta here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mania

I was awake at 4:47 this morning and between cat shenanigans and the hamster wheel inside my brains, I quickly realized I had no chance of getting back to sleep. I got up shortly after 5, and got to campus by 8:30. I've been on a mad tear ever since--and I'm still not completely caught up, but I don't feel like I'm drowning just yet, either. Surfing the tsunami, as it were.

Two students withdrew from 102 today. A bunch were not there--and I had prepared a miniature rant targeted partly to students who didn't show up. I had intended to put on a show of anger about their apparent disregard of my comments on their papers, but they looked so scared when I started to talk to them about their revisions that I didn't have the heart to do the act. I delivered pretty much the same lines, but the tone was more severe and cautionary than enraged. I did remind them again--as I will continue to all semester long--that they really do have to change, and that means changing how they write, too. Several seemed to think that if they simply did more of the same thing--or didn't do anything at all--they'd be fine, and they're now facing the reality. One student even got a pretty harsh comment on her paper: I told her that if she is not willing to actually change her work, her skills will never improve--but meanwhile, what is expected of her will increase, so her skills will fall further and further short of what is required. She's one of those pretty and relatively smart young women who has never been challenged before, so I expect she'll either be wounded or offended (or both). I don't know if she'll change: I've seen students who "present" as she does go both ways. Some get their knickers in a knot and huff about what a blind bitch I am not to be able to see their obvious and glowing merit. Others actually hear the wake up call and come to me in a panic (and sometimes in tears), willing to do the work to change. It will be interesting to see what she does. If anything. There's always the minority who have zero response, as if I've said nothing.

This young woman is one of a group of three friends who registered for the class together. One of them was among today's withdrawals. And the third is one of the better students in the class. Not only is her work pretty good to start with, she is hard working and willing to actually learn, grow, change. One could write the movie of how their lives will turn out....

Oh, and apropos of nothing, does it strike any other educators as somewhat idiotic when a student misses class and apologizes for the "inconvenience"? I'm not inconvenienced when they don't show up. No skin off my nose one way or the other, in fact. On the other hand, they might find that they're facing something a bit more significant than a mere "inconvenience" when it comes to their grades, but somehow they don't seem to consider that little fact.

Shifting gears, a student from tomorrow's 102 came to my office today. He's been in before to meet with me, and he breaks my heart. He is smart; he has fine ideas--and his sentence-level skills are flat out terrible. He knows it, too. I was as gentle as I could be today, but I told him if he doesn't get those skills improved, he won't be able to pass. And in fact, despite the obvious work that went into his revision, it doesn't pass--just because of the sentence-level stuff. He admitted that he doesn't proofread, so I encouraged him to A) get specific help on sentence-level errors from the Writing Center and B) ask them to help him develop his skills as a proofreader. (Notice that I didn't suggest he have them proofread for him: no, no.) He is sweet and lovely and cares deeply and wants to learn and grow--and I want him to pass, I truly do. But really, it does him no favors if I pass him before he can write a real sentence. I hate, truly and deeply hate, hurting the ones who care and who try. He knows he's struggling, but he's not giving up. And that's even harder for me to take. All my urges to rescue come flying to the surface, and I have to remind myself that rescue is not my job.

But oh, it hurts; it makes me want to weep to see that tender and earnest young man take his bitter, painful medicine with such quiet patience.

Well.

I got through all but two of the sabbatical applications after Advisement today; I have more papers to mark for tomorrow, but I knew I'd hit the point of diminishing returns on that (despite a double-size package of peanut M&Ms to give me strength). I'll be up early again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. I realize I have to bail on the committee I'm supposed to attend tomorrow--not just the one meeting but the committee as a whole. It makes sense for me to be on it (it's the committee that selects texts to stock for the adjuncts, and as I am involved in scheduling the adjuncts, providing their desk copies of texts, and observing them, well, it seems like it ought to be a good fit), but I have two boxes of potential texts that I've received over the past month and I will have zero time in the next month to even crack the covers. One of the boxes isn't even open, in fact. I have friends on the committee, so I'll miss the chance to see them, but I know they'll understand when I say I just can't.

Adding to the enormous wave of work that's chasing me, over the weekend there was also a sudden flurry of tasks for me to attend to in my position as the Professional Liaison Coordinator (PLC) for ASLE. I've only taken care of the most immediately pressing things (which only required a few e-mails), but at some point I will need to sit down and educate myself, prioritize tasks, and dig more deeply into what needs to be done--and start doing it. At some point. I'm grateful that I'm not getting any (or much) external pressure from the rest of the Executive Council about my work in this position--and I know help (and patience) are readily available. But I do want to do well with this. I took it on partly with an eye toward my next promotion but also because I love ASLE: it's an amazing organization, a nurturing, friendly, fascinating home for ecocritics (and jeez, wouldn't I love to actually be one, if I could ever be a scholar of any kind again); I've been a member since I was in grad school, and I very much want to give something back to the organization. But right now? Oh, God. It's just one ... more ... thing.

So I'm in a manic state now, from all the work I've been doing and all that I know I still need to do, but I also know if I don't start to pry my grip loose from today and let go of it all, just for over night, I will never sleep and then I'll be ragged as all hell tomorrow. I'm not quite sure how to affect the shift into relaxation and drowsiness (anyone got a good heavy skillet to hit me with?) but staying here in the office blogging is probably not the solution. So, I'm going to grab just what I need to take home (not a single thing even vaguely resembling work) and get in the car. It's that time of year when I wake up in darkness and go home from work in darkness: thank god for the trips across campus during the daylight hours or I'd start to feel like something from Revenge of the Mole People.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

End-of-week review

I'm behind the curve today: the dental appointment I had this morning went on a lot longer than I anticipated, so I didn't get to think about or look at any papers, or sabbatical applications, or anything beyond making sure I have observers set up for all the adjuncts who need observations. I'm grateful that I only have to do one; a colleague came through at the Nth hour, agreeing to take on two of them, including the early a.m. class. Whew.

I met with two students today--one of them was Mr. Dedicated. I snapped at him a little, when once again I pointed out vague/unclear use of terms and he resisted, saying "it's common sense" and "I don't know what you want of me." He said I think of him as some English major and he's not. I assured him I do not think of him that way: I know I'm asking a lot, but it's a kind of thinking he must learn to do. I calmed down pretty quickly, and I hope managed to explain to him how he needs to look at my critiques. He wants an A and is very locked into the grade as the evidence of success. I also tried to reframe that for him, getting him to realize that the real success or failure will come from how much he learns, how much progress he makes. The grade may not be as high as he hopes--I certainly can't guarantee an A, given my strict standards--but he is already learning a lot. I know he can't feel it now: all he feels is the pain and frustration of the process. But he is making progress. His dedication to the hard work, the fight in him, is truly admirable.

I also met with another student from that class who told me that he realizes he's being challenged to do something new and different: that what has worked for him in the past isn't going to work any more, so he's struggling to learn this new way of thinking and writing. I felt a surge of relief: yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

These are both students from the short story class, and I realize I should have given that class the "college will change you" speech, too. Something to consider for next semester.

Today's 102 was, of course, a blast. They were asking smart questions about the paper already, and then were so engrossed in the discussion of the poems that the class was over before they expected. I love when they are startled that we're out of time: that's a great sign. And they are doing a great job getting from the details of the poems to an interpretation. I'm delighted.

But now I have to hustle out of here--again, flinging this post up on the web largely unrevised and unproofed. Tonight I have a phone appointment with one of the executive officers of ASLE (the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) so we can discuss my duties as the Professional Liaison Coordinator. A lot is popping right now in terms of that position, so add that to the pearls bouncing around my feet, threatening to vanish through the cracks....

Off I go. It's going to be a hell of a weekend.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

18, 19

Those are today's magic numbers. I had 18 students in the short story class: I'm pretty sure that's the full house, those who are left. I think one or two students who were absent today may be back, but I'm also pretty sure that one or two who were there today are not long for this world, so to speak. I did deliver to Mrs. Lost the "you should withdraw" letter. She made some good contributions in class (as she tends to do, though she tends to go on at rather too great length), but I hope that just demonstrates to her that I have nothing against her personally--and am not calling her stupid (which seems to be one of her main concerns). Whatever the case may be, I hope she withdraws immediately. I can't keep looking at her work; it's too painful. But if the class is indeed at 18 students, that's already significant attrition: I started with 28. Two officially withdrew within the first three days. But from 26 to 18? I'm not up to the math, but it's a noticeable percentage. And they've not even had to write their first substantive paper yet: it's due next week.

Nineteen is the number of finished essays I received from today's 102. I got them on Monday, but I just put them in order, making sure all the pieces for each submission were clipped together, and I graded the first one on the stack. Doing so made me realize I'm not entirely sure how to mark them. I want to be as brief as possible, but I also want them to see where problems persist--or where they've made improvements. As I'm figuring out this process for myself, I realize I need to re-collect the versions that I graded, but I don't have that information this go-round, so I'm having just to work from what I've got.

I'm not terribly surprised but somewhat deflated to see how many of them are missing pieces of their final submission, despite all I did to try to make clear what they needed to hand in. Well, they'll get points off for each missing piece, and I hope that's enough to make them pay better attention next time.

I was annoyed by an e-mail from a student that I received this morning (sent last night): she had left one in-progress piece on my door and wrote to ask when the final version is due. Um, Dear? Read your syllabus: it was due yesterday. I said at least four times that I would collect the in-progress bits on Tuesday with the final version. And I gave you a handout to that effect. And the syllabus very clearly states when the final version is due. So, really, where is your head in all this, student of mine?

Also annoying are the e-mails I've gotten from students saying "I don't know what to do; tell me what to add or cut." Um, Dear? Then it would be my work and my thinking, not yours. I give pretty extensive feedback in the form of questions you need to answer. Did you read the feedback?

(No, probably not.)

I also am about to either snatch myself baldheaded or turn to heavy drink when I see that despite my specifically stating that papers should NOT begin with a big generalization, despite all the work the students did in class evaluating introductory paragraphs and observing the fact that the problem with them was that they started with big generalizations--which the students know I don't want--twelve of nineteen start with (drum roll, please) a big generalization. Some of those generalizations are shorter than others, but still.

I guess this is just a "rule" of writing that has been so firmly drummed into their heads that they cannot let go of it. I mean, how much more direct can one get than to say "Do not start with a big generalization"--and then to provide specific examples of what I do not want to see, as well as what I do want to see?

Oh, heavy, heavy sigh. I have to get these graded and back to the students next week, before they have to embark on their next papers, but to do so may require significant infusions of chocolate. I need to sprinkle treats throughout the process of grading when I get to this point of semester, when I feel like the "blah blah blah, Ginger" effect is in full force. I know, intellectually, that it takes a long while, and a lot of practice, for something they understand conceptually to actually become evident in their papers. I understand, intellectually, how difficult it is to let go of what one has always done and actually take the leap into doing something new. They try the same thing, over and over, as if somehow, magically, it's going to start to work, despite all evidence to the contrary. I believe, intellectually, that such magical thinking is endemic to the human race.

But what I apprehend intellectually is not the same as how I feel about it. I feel impatient, and frustrated, and discouraged, and despairing. Repeatedly running full tilt into the side of a building seems more likely to produce some kind of positive result--and to be less painful.

Very heavy sigh.

But on the good news front, I did mark all the papers and reading journals for the short story class. I have one set of journals from them, which I collected today, but those can wait until I've waded through the 102 papers. Even better news: the discussion in 102 of the poems was among the more lively for that particular section. It's a chemistry thing: they're not bonding with each other enough to get jazzed when we go to full-class discussion. But the class is not terrible by any means; they're just not as scintillating as the other 102.

I think, despite my desire to get a good jump start on their papers, I may not mark any more today. I may not get to many (any) tomorrow, either, as I have to review sabbatical applications for P&B and am expecting a parade of students through my office from 11:30 until my class at 2:30. But one never knows. Maybe I will get through the sabbatical apps faster than I anticipate and will still have some brain energy left for grading. That would be nice.

I just had to put the blog on hold for a moment--a longish moment--while I met with a student here in Advisement. She had both a strong accent and a slight speach impediment, so I found her difficult to understand--and her lack of energy, interest, enthusiasm made me want to run around barking, just to get something happening. And, oh woe, she wants to get into the nursing program. We see this a lot: students who are desperately underprepared and lacking any sense of what it takes to be a good student hoping to apply to the nursing program. I want to make them read the applicant guidelines out loud, as so many of them manifestly do not meet qualification number 6: "Nursing students must be alert, able to think critically and problem solve ... and be able to communicate effectively in English." Her 2.0 GPA aside (a 3.0 is the bare minimum for application), the young woman I met demonstrated none of the above.

Another sigh.

Still, meeting with her made me feel useful and somewhat assuaged those faint sensations of guilt over the fact that I'm not cranking away at paper grading like I "should." And meeting with her did help a bit of time pass quickly away, so I'm that much closer to the "fold my tents" part of the evening. That's a sigh of a completely different sort.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Argh redux

I have no idea what happened to today. I seem to have spent every free moment (not many of them, but still), clearing the decks so I could turn my full attention to marking the papers for the short story class--and barely managed at last to get to marking the dratted papers. I wanted a squirrel-free brain, which I did achieve, but now I'm tired and cranky and not feeling well physically (bleagh). And I was awakened by a squirrel stampede in the wee hours this morning, unable to fall back to sleep before the alarm, which also does not lead to clarity of comment on papers--nor is it conducive to stamina.

I've not graded many of those mini-papers, and so far, I don't see much improvement from the first ones. I realize, over and over, how hard it is for students to incorporate commentary into substantive change in their work. Breaking the old habits of thought and expression, even focus, is difficult. I tend to forget just how difficult, not having had that experience with writing. (Not that I didn't have bad habits--I did and do--but I've found it pretty painless to address them. I like words, and I see very clearly how they work.) I have, however, felt that blockage in many other places in my life, so I try to remember to apply my experience in my riding lessons, for instance, or with some of my bad habits in dance, to my awareness of what my students are going through. I still am pretty ferocious in my commentary, and in my standards, but I find I can stay more patient if I feel more compassion. Not terribly surprising, that.

In any event, clearly it's going to be another "get up early and hope I can get through it" kind of morning tomorrow. It's highly unlikely that I'll find the energy (or focus) to tackle any more tonight. I did get some very helpful feedback from Paul on the letter to Mrs. Lost. I'll deliver it to her tomorrow, and we'll see what happens.

But following my subtext about the need for patience (and my tendency starting at this point in the semester to lose it): I also briefly want to note an experience that taxed mine. Just a bit ago, there was a knock at the door. As I went toward the door to open it, the student started to walk in without being invited (which pisses me off), then asked to see "Miss" Payne. So, without being too mean (I hope) I set him straight on waiting for an invitation (which he said he thought he heard--though I'd said nothing at all) and on calling anyone in these offices "Professor." Then it turned out he is an engineering student, putting together an application for something, and he wanted an English professor to "proofread" what he'd written. I asked why he came to me: answer, because I had my office hour now. I directed him to the Writing Center--and he pushed me to help him myself. It's only one page, he said, just one; it won't take long. Nope, sorry, not my role. I'm here to help students enrolled in my classes, not as a general resource for anyone passing by. Quite honestly, I'm not certain about the Writing Center's official policy on helping students with application essays and so on--and I told him they might not be willing to help him--but they're a damned sight closer to what he's looking for than I am. I also told him they won't proofread for him--they're not an editorial service--but they can give him pointers for how to proofread more effectively himself. But it annoyed the snot out of me that he would consider any professor as existing simply to serve him. I don't think I was nasty, but he seemed startled and a bit miffed when I was firm in my refusal. I'd lash my tail and growl more, but ... enh. Not worth the energy.

It is, however, time to once again talk about how much I enjoy today's 102 class. I dragged my unhappy body over there with my enthusiasm at about ankle depth--and although I was a bit cranky at the start (dealing with the questions about what I'd been looking for in terms of a requirement on the second version, dealing with students who were missing papers entirely, or missing key bits), as soon as I started talking about the poetry, they got me amped up and having a blast. They were asking terrific questions about what poetry is supposed to do. I had used the analogy of poetry being like a painting: one does not talk about the point a painting makes, or the story it tells (though, actually, some sort of do), or whether one agrees with it. But then they asked whether paintings can be analyzed--not figurative paintings but, say, abstract impressionist works (yep, though not the same way a poem can be)--and whether it isn't simply that we see whatever we see (well, to a point, yes, but one can go astray).

I wasn't anticipating that eager desire to understand the role of art, of poetry in particular--and if I'd been prepared for it, I'd have been happy to talk to them more about what art is, what art is for (though I'm not sure anyone truly has a definitive answer to that). I love when I get a chance just to talk ideas with students, not herd them through a particular set of tasks. However, I did have to get them working on the first poem, and they did a great job on it (the correct one this time). It is--as I may have noted--extremely difficult to get students to back off from interpretation until they've carefully examined all the individual pieces. They always want to pole vault to conclusions without seeing what's beneath them, and invariably when they do, they end up pretty damned far from where the poem actually is going. But they listened and took it to heart when I reinforced with them that they needed to look at details first. And they were energetic and enthusiastic and actually thinking. I loved it.

And now we'll see how their reading journals look.

Oh, and another piece of good news: Bruce handled the situation with the problematic adjunct, had a very productive and positive meeting with him, so I don't need to fret about that. Whew. I am still struggling to try to palm off some of the observations that need to be done--as it is, I've got one observation each week between now and when I take off for Thanksgiving, and there are still three that need to be scheduled--but I'm hopeful that I can get rid of at least two of the three (especially the one at 8 a.m.). This is the kind of feet-clearing stuff I was handling earlier. Even though I'm not looking forward to the paperwork that goes with the observations, at least those particular pearls haven't fallen through the floor-boards.

But I need to let go of that kind of thinking or I'll get into a train of all the things I need to remember to do, those pearls bouncing around my feet from the snapped necklace (to mix a metaphor).... Once I get on that train, I get progressively manic (and somewhat panicky), so it's best I just take one thing at a time. I'm not going to go to dance class tonight. I'm not going to stay for the remainder of my evening office hour. I'm going to wrap up this blog post, pack up my troubles in my old kit bag (so to speak), and go home. Everyone, say it with me: "After all, tomorrow is another day."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Oh, argh

Stupid, stupid, stupid. I launched into a discussion of poetry in 102 today and didn't look at my own damned syllabus, so I started the students on the wrong set of poems. Further, I didn't come to class prepared with the study questions the syllabus says they need to have ready for Wednesday. I fiddled around with the assignments so they have at least some clue what to do for the next class, and I think I have the study questions done, but I haven't looked at them in so long, I have no idea whether I actually like the way I set up the assignments. So, not only do I need to get the study questions ready, I need to look at their syllabus (not my copy) to see how to move assignments around to make some kind of sense. As soon as I'm back in my office, guess what I'll be doing.

I do intend to keep the T/Th class on track, however, so for the next two weeks my 102s are going to be out of sync. I don't much care for that, but oh well. At least one class should be doing what I said we'd be doing.

The short story class is on track, but it may have contracted down to 14 students; it's hard to tell. Today was not exactly heavy lifting, but it wasn't a rip-snorting good class with lots of student input. Are they shell-shocked? Did the story simply not land very well with them? I don't know what's going on. And I'm not in a frame of mind right now to try to figure it out.

I've been fretting a lot about Mrs. Lost. I realized, on top of everything else wrong with her second mini-paper, it isn't actually a second mini-paper: it's simply a longer version of her first one. I've just spent some time composing a letter telling her that she cannot, cannot pass. Why a letter? OK, I confess: part of it is my deep-seated aversion to confrontation. But the larger issue is that she needs to hear in no uncertain terms that she can't make it, and I need to have documentary evidence of why I say so. I marked the paper she submitted. It's an ocean of red.

Painful sigh.

Equally painful, I've not come up with any good solution to the problem of the adjunct professor who is taking his frustrations out on his remedial students. I fully understand his frustration (this is why I will not teach 001), but what he's doing is completely counterproductive. I need to talk to Bruce about it. (When? Christ, there is no time in the day, unless I start getting here at 8 a.m.)

I'm also trying to get some help with observations of new adjuncts. A few former members of P&B have graciously agreed to help (even though they're off full professor rank, and hardly need the small sum one gets paid for conducting such an observation), but I need to figure out who's left with no observer and suck it up to observe them myself. In addition to the observations I need to do of full-time faculty. Well, I agreed to do the job.

Days like this I feel like I'm being pinched in all directions--and just a few days ago I was saying how much looser and more open my schedule feels this semester, since I've backed off committees and so on. Jinxed myself, apparently.

I feel like I've got a squirrel stampede going on in my brain. (Anyone remember the Electronic Data Systems Super Bowl ad on the Running of the Squirrels? I still laugh.... http://youtu.be/2Z2_kKAe9y0) Part of the problem is that I need things (calendar, list of adjuncts to be observed, and so on) that are in my office, and without them, I don't have the tools I need to get those squirrels under control. I could be marking the reading journals and mini-papers for the short story class--plus I just got final versions of essay 1 from today's 102 class, so that's even more to grade--but, well, it's hard to mark papers in the middle of a squirrel stampede.

But, to reframe the day, I like to remind myself of something good that has happened. And I have several good things to remember. One is, the young man from the short story class who has come to me for help several times, who read the blog (the one who said it might be "too honest")--I'll call him Dedicated--e-mailed again asking for a meeting to go over his next paper, the first full-size paper of the semester. In that e-mail, he referred to me as his new favorite professor. This despite the fact that he's spent a lot of time telling me that I frustrate him because he feels he can't "win" with me. Clearly, he's actually learning--and discovering that learning, stretching his brain, can be a wonderful thing. I'm flattered, of course, and I don't believe he's blowing smoke. I think he genuinely is happy about me as his professor--and of course, I'm delighted with him as a student. He wants every shred of help and input I can give him, and he's willing to take the critiques. Please God, give me classrooms full of students like him.

I also met with the very bright young man from tomorrow's 102: I have to come up with a nickname for him. He's grappling with the need to set aside the fancy phrasing and get clear: I gave him a hard time about a couple of his sentences--and actually stopped "teaching" for a moment to edit instead, so he could see how rewording would make his ideas stand up. It was a great session, and I think he's starting to get the hang of it. As I said to him, his ideas are complex: if he also strives for complexity in the sentences, it's overwhelming, and his readers will lose his points in the verbiage. He's worried about sounding like a kindergartener, but I reminded him that his ideas are far too advanced for that, no matter how simply he expresses them. I hope that got through. We'll see: the proof is in the paper.

While I was here in the Advisement Center, I actually did advise two (!!) students. One just needed to know if she can drop a class (yes, but you'll need to take it again soon, as without it, there are a bunch of classes you can't sign up for--and you'll go under full-time status, so be sure you understand the ramifications of that decision). The other wanted to know what he needs to graduate: that was a little more in depth, but he was very happy with the information I gave him (as was the young woman). Two satisfied customers. That deserves a contented sigh.

I'm about to reread this post, then depart this building and head back to my office. I've got a busy day tomorrow--including whatever paper grading I don't get done tonight--so I want to make sure the decks are clear and the squirrels have left me standing and at least relatively compos mentis.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Quick Thursday recap

A student in today's class said she read the blog. She was very cute about it, saying she didn't realize I was so down to earth. She kept feeling like she was saying something that sounded potentially insulting, but I understood. She has always had the impression that academics are so far up in their heads that they can't just be people--and she's right about many. I know far too many in the professorial ranks who are so erudite as to be impossible partners in relaxed conversation. I said that I am an intellectual--and I am--but I can also be a person (I hope). I have more than one register of discourse available to me, I'm happy to say: white tie and tails, chalk and talk, beer and peanuts.

Another student (about whom I've blogged in the past: super bright but prolix in his written expression) also made it clear he'd read the blog. Once again, I trotted out my "I'm sitting in the kitchen analogy" and he said, "You are going to be sitting in the kitchen alone." Made me laugh. It also made me laugh that the young woman who thought I was down to earth said, "She [meaning me] wants spaghetti and I'm making chicken." Yeah, I said, you do have to use my recipe.... This analogy may turn out to be more useful in communications with students than I thought. I used it thinking it would be useful for my own attempts to understand what's going on with me, but it seems it has wider application.

Once again, they did a great job today. I circulated the room, as I did yesterday, answering questions, providing feedback, encouraging deeper thought. They're getting the hang of this whole "you have to change" thing. I think. I hope.

Shifting gears away from my dear students, I may have gotten myself in trouble--but I hope it will be worth it. For years, Paul has offered to nominate me for a Chancellor's Award in teaching. He did one year, but somehow (I won't go into my conspiracy theory about that) I never got the information about deadlines and missed my chance. Then I said "no" a few times, as I know that the application process is a bitch. But this time, I said, Oh, what the hell. So there's a preliminary meeting to go over deadlines and requirements on Tuesday (my excuse not to go to College-Wide Assessment committee meeting)--and now I have to start working on the application. I'm already thinking over what kinds of evidence I have of my impact on students, substantiation of my own claim to being a good teacher.... I may try to make myself do that some while I'm here, when there are no students (as is the case right now).

The other event of the day that I need to record is that just by happenstance, I was in the main office when a group of students had gathered to meet with Bruce regarding problems with an adjunct professor. As that's my bailiwick, as assistant to the chair, he asked if I had time to attend the meeting. I did, so I did. And it was horrifying.

The class in question is an 001: remedial writing. The professor is rude and insulting to his students: he refers to those who admit to confusion or ask questions as "members of the Dumas clan"--and, in the e-mails that they must print and bring to class, he specifies that "Dumas" rhymes with "some grass." We're not talking the French author here. As far as we could determine, the students are not actually writing; certainly they are not following the theme-based essay construction focus that is the mandated structure of an 001 class. He asks them to do grammar drills--following extremely confusing instructions--and then, according to the students, simply ignores them if they ask for clarification. This is also his stated policy in his e-mails to them: first he encourages them to ask questions but then he says if they ask the wrong kind of question at the wrong time, he will simply ignore them.

Jeezus. Bruce and I are in a real quandary about how to proceed. These poor students need to pass an exit exam at the end of the term, and right now, they are not getting anything at all that will help them do that. Bruce and I were trying to strategize what to do and how: we want to help these students, but we also have to tread very carefully in terms of this professor's contractual protections (which exist for very good reasons). We need to talk to him, in the (possibly vain) hope that he will radically alter his pedagogical approach in time to help the students succeed at the end of the term. Probably he needs to be observed (shit; another adjunct observation for me to try to schedule, dammit)--but that won't have immediate impact on what's happening with the students. This professor has not taught this particular course before, and Bruce is tearing himself to shreds about the fact that he made the decision to even offer the man the chance. We thought we were doing a good thing, making sure he had two classes to teach, but this is a debacle.

So, Bruce and I are going to stew about it over the weekend. Personally, I'm hoping for one of those blinding moments when a potential solution drops from the air.

Speaking of which, Mrs. Lost came to the office today. She turned in another disaster of a paper, but she said she "talked to the Lord" and suddenly realized what it is she needs to do, so she'll be able to do it when she revises this paper. I hope the Lord can help her out, because she needs more than just to understand the difference between summary and analysis. Here is a sample sentence (with some elisions) from what she turned in: "Aptly there was a bridge that were need inorden for the people to get to the other side off town ... the old woman haunthed The town's people until she got what it was that she wonted, inordent to get the bridge build. She had plain too feed the men after the bridge was build ... but she to tide to go to the store, she had thou to seen her grandchild, But the child has never been to the story alone." And on it goes like that. But this time, I intend to mark the hell out of the paper, circling each misspelling, pointing out each sentence structure error, every teeny thing, so she can see what she's up against.

And I try not to despair.

But I want to head off campus for the week with a sweeter memory of the week. After class, I talked to the very bright young man: in fact, he walked across campus with me so we could continue the conversation. I'm setting him a difficult goal--to write very simply, to throw away the ideas and phrases he has fallen in love with and exchange them for something much more direct, plain, and clear. It's going to be hard, but that's his challenge for the semester. And yet, going through that kind of struggle is a delight, because I know he's up to the challenge.

Just as I was getting ready to sum all this up--and after the stroke of 5 (when my time in Advisement officially ends)--a student was sent to me for advising. I didn't want to chase her out again, was a little rushed, but she ended up feeling like she got the help she needed, which is all to the good.

And now, without reviewing this at all (no spell check, no editing--rare), I'm going to race back to my office, fling stuff in and out of various bags so I have what I need for the weekend (mini-papers to mark, mostly), and head off for a spectacular steak dinner celebration with a good friend. Beginning with a very large scotch.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

First Advisement

I just had my first session advising a student. Smart young man, it seemed, wants to transfer to St. Johns, thought he was a lot closer to graduation here than he is. I felt a little confused and out of it at first, but eventually got sorted out--I hope without looking like too much of an idiot. The one thing I forgot (oops) was to get his signature on the little advisement form I filled out for him. Oh well. I'll get better at this as I do it more.

It does help the time to go more quickly here to see students--and that's what I like about being here anyway, the one-on-one with students. Eventually, it will be a constant stream of them, with mobs waiting to be seen. Right now, it's mostly empty empty empty.

Well.

The main event of today was that I did get a chance to sit down and talk with Mrs. Lost, the older woman in my short story class. She had another excuse for me, that she has her mini-paper written but can't figure out why it won't print (she's the one who said she doesn't know how to use e-mail). I could do an entire riff on that, but setting it aside, I told her I was very concerned about her chances of success in the class. She did, finally, manage to submit a reading journal in two columns (as my form mandates), but her responses were more of the obvious, ineffectual summary she's been doing, nothing even in the ballpark of the attempts toward analysis she needs to engage in. I could feel her anger and frustration, but she kept it in check: I doubt she's been confronted before, even though what I did was the gentlest possible confrontation. Bruce suggested I tell her she should, for her own purposes, take 001, even if she audits it, and retake 101 and 102 for better grades. However, she isn't at all sure whether she wants to continue her education: she just wants to get her associate's degree, and my class is one of two she needs to finish (so she says, anyway).

She did go to the Writing Center (OK, one good step). I suggested she take the reading journal instructions to the Writing Center and ask for help with that, too. I said that I don't know how else to explain to her what I'm looking for other than what I've already gone over in class, and that it seems the way I explain things doesn't work with how she understands things--that my teaching style and her learning style may not work together. At one point she said, "I may be slow, but I'm not stupid and I'm not crazy." And she's right: she's not. But she is woefully, desperately unprepared for the kind of work I demand as a bare minimum in my classes.

Ultimately, I said we'd re-evaluate after I see her next papers and a few more reading journals. This poor woman has terrible asthma (she was wheezing and coughing all through class today) and is diabetic to boot. I don't want her to drive herself into the ground trying to do work for a class that she simply cannot pass--but she is determined to keep trying for a while longer, and I don't want to deny her the chance to try. I am not sanguine about the chances for a miraculous turn-around here, but she deserves the opportunity. She said she was grateful I took the time to talk to her--and I think that was sincere. I know she was upset (who wouldn't be, in that situation), but she was gracious and dignified about the whole thing. I admire her determination and her desire to engage in this process, whatever the ultimate end may be.

From that encounter (which was less upsetting to me than I feared it might be), I went straight to my 102. The start of the class was a little heavy on lecture (how to format a paper, how to do a works cited page), but then I turned students loose to work on version two of their papers. I did find myself explaining at least five times (no exaggeration) what I will collect with their final versions on Monday. I finally asked them to help me explain it: sometimes they can put things into the kind of language their peers will understand much more quickly and easily than I can.

So, as they worked away, they were calling me over to ask questions--and now the panic is hitting. Several are desperate to see me tomorrow, or were, until I told them I would not read over their entire papers and give feedback. No, sorry, I said, but I will answer specific questions. I even trotted out the "I'm sitting in the kitchen" analogy--and heard, very quietly from the back of the room, a despairing "that sucks." (The comment truly was not offered with any sense of resentment from the student; more in sorrow than in anger. I almost laughed, but yeah, that's the sad truth. You have to do the work on your own.) One very lively young woman finally expressed her concern about her reading journal grades. It's a bit late to recognize that there is a problem, but I'm glad it's starting to hit, and I'm happy to help her figure out what's needed--but she has to come see me so we can talk it over.

It was good to have a classroom full of students who were working diligently away. A few are well behind the curve, not having submitted their first version, but they're still slogging away at it. (I suddenly thought, I need to see if I put together their second essay assignment, their poetry papers. I think I did, but I need to look it over and be sure it still makes sense. Funny how those "Oh, I need to remember" bits bounce into my brain, attached to some train of thought I can't trace back.) Their questions were generally very good. The same lively young woman first admitted that her writing skills had gotten rusty over the summer (yep, it happens) and then said, "Well, at least I'm going to know how to write a paper." Oh, hallelujah. Yes, dear, and thank you.

I did distribute my own personal "early warning" notices--to half the short story class, essentially, and to a small handful of the students in 102. (I don't know when the official notices from NCC will go "live.") One student who was going to get a warning withdrew today, to my infinite relief. He's the one who started to protest that he was going to be marked absent on the day he showed up without a version to work on--despite the fact that the syllabus clearly states that anyone who comes to class without one will be so marked. I've gotten whiffs of hostility and bitter resistance from him from the first day, so his early decision to withdraw is a nice little sequin stitched onto today's fabric.

I still have those last four papers for tomorrow's class to mark, but it was another night of not enough sleep (I did go to dance class, didn't get home until very late, and woke up well before the alarm for no reason I can determine). Tomorrow is another blissfully meeting-free day, so I have a chunk of time in the morning, before my office hour at 1, to get them tended to. Today, I'm letting myself off the hook. The fact that I'm even blogging now, here in Advisement instead of waiting until I get back to my office, is a way to get myself off campus and home, winding down, as early as humanly possible. When I finish my hours here (at 4:15), I will roll my wheelie-bag across campus back to my office, transfer stuff out of and into my bag, and flee.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Plan B

I was up at 5:30 a.m., and I still didn't get those papers marked. Dammit. The students who were there today were, of course, disappointed and anxious, and I felt bad to keep them hanging--but actually (I remind myself, to assuage my guilt), if I'd gone on my trip they wouldn't have gotten papers back until Thursday anyway, so they're not actually suffering.

I expect a few of the students may check in on the blog: I told them about it today, told them I've stated publicly that they're my favorite group, so they may be checking in to see if I was telling the truth about that. I was. They are. Case in point:

Today, after going over some sample introductory/thesis paragraphs culled from papers last semester, I put them in pairs to evaluate their own initial paragraphs. As they were working on moving from version two of their papers toward their final versions, I sat grading papers--and spontaneously, two pairs decided to form a group of four and to cross-read first paragraphs in variations of the initial pairings, so they got more feedback, from more different sources. (I teased them about how long it would be before the four of them are hanging out together, drinking beer.... It was a tease, but they do seem to be very comfortable with each other, forming at least an in-class camaraderie that I find lovely to observe, even if they don't end up friends outside of class. Though that would be great, too. It does happen sometimes, and I feel strangely flattered when it does.) Other pairs worked together, then--again spontaneously--swapped partners, further multiplying the feedback they received. And when one student left (um, OK... I guess she figured it was an optional class so she could come and, more to the point, go, as she pleased), a group of three formed. Even at the end of class, as the students were leaving the room, they were talking about the stories, their papers, how to improve.

Hot damn, I love that. I love it when they take the reins, when they do what is best for them--and not once did I have to ride herd, reminding them to get back on task, policing them to be sure they were being productive. When students are firing on all cylinders like that, the energy and work palpable in the room, I love this job. I truly love it. And this group tends to do that, regularly. It's one of those gifts of class chemistry, in which there are just enough of the bright and hard-working students--and they get along personally well enough--to lift the energy across the board. There are still the requisite lunks, but I'm pretty sure they will drop by the wayside pretty rapidly here.

On that front, Paul asked me how many students I have in my various sections, and I realized I don't know. Clearly, the students who showed up today are the core group in that particular class: they all care enough about what they are doing, their grades, to come to an "optional" class meeting, and they are dedicated and hard working enough to dig into the process fully. Of the ones who didn't come to class today, I honestly don't know how many will make it. The stuttering start to the semester, caused by the canceled classes, means it's difficult to tell which students are truly racking up absences and which are perhaps behind the curve but still potentially in the race. That's even more the case for the Monday-Wednesday classes. A fair number of students were in the short story class's "optional" meeting, but how many of the remainder intend to return is a mystery to me. Very few indeed showed up for yesterday's 102. Hard to tell what that portends.

It is, however, time for me to issue my own early warnings. NCC does an official early warning, but--as I've remarked in semesters past--the college's sense of "early" is already too late for many of my students. We're one third of the way through the semester, and several students have yet to submit anything--or have turned in only one or two of the assignments to date. That's not entirely promising.

Ah well.

Paul and I had a good talk today about our need to find a way to care as much as we do without letting the job bleed us dry. We both have a tendency to invest way too much, to pour too much of ourselves into the work and get too little return. Days like today are wonderful, classes like today's are terrific, but I could all too easily allow the time I spend on it to fill every moment I've gained by getting the reassigned time to work in the Advisement Center. Today's grading difficulty is evidence of the problem: getting up as early as I did, I should have had enough time to get many more graded than I did, but as I sat on my couch this morning, I realized I was drifting--no, veering sharply--back into the old habit of marking, which is insanely time-consuming. Stop it, Payne, stop, just stop. I cannot keep sane if I perpetuate that methodology. And I am sucked into it by my desire to give my students everything they could ever possibly need. The feast, instead of the invitation into the kitchen (to pick up on the analogy I trotted out a few posts ago).

The one good thing about not having gotten those last papers marked for today's class is that now I can finish them up tomorrow after (I hope) having gotten a reasonable night's sleep. I have four more to grade, and if I keep my red pen in check, it shouldn't take me much more than an hour, if that (instead of the two or more hours the old method would have required). If I'm careful, and relatively compos mentis, from being sufficiently rested, I can give intelligent and focused feedback, keeping the commentary succinct. It will serve them better, in addition to being easier on me.

Or that's the theory anyway.

Shifting gears a bit, I met with a student from the short story class today to provide help with his mini-paper and his reading journals. Bless him, he's the one I mentioned in yesterday's post, who sent me the cute message about my not breaking his heart. I know he read the blog: long story, but the salient information is, he was feeling I had chastised him about his e-mail, and I assured him that I'd loved it: "You made the blog!" He promptly trotted off and read it. He sent me an e-mail after (really about further meetings) and said that the blog was "almost too honest." I've asked him for clarification about that, but I have a hunch I know what he means--especially as he suggested I not make the blog's existence public knowledge among my students.

I go back and forth about this. Some semesters I'm more vocal about the fact that I have the blog than others--and sometimes doing so does come back to bite me in the ass. I did warn today's students that I can be pretty, um, direct, shall we say, so the thin-skinned might want to steer clear. I do recall a post some time back, in which I stated that I was certain a number of students in one particular section would fail: not only did a student respond as if he/she were a professor (anonymously, I might add), ranting about what an unprofessional, rotten shit I was to even suggest such a thing, but I also had a student from that class--one who was, in fact, a faint breath away from failing--show up in my office in tears over that post. (As it happened, she managed to squeak out a D, and I've never seen anyone so thrilled with a marginal pass in all my days.) I issued an apology in the blog, but in truth, I simply called it as I saw it, and wish now I'd had the courage to let the fallout be what it may, no apologies.

Still, I'm considering a slight redesign of the blog, so that right at the top, front and center, there is a warning to students that if they read what I post, they have to be prepared for bare-knuckles honesty, which may sting, even bruise.

I actually don't mind if students read the blunt truth here. Nor do I mind if they see me with my metaphoric hair down, profanities and obscenities in full bloom. (I don't swear with abandon in the classroom, but the blog is not something I claim professionally: it's more personal than that.) Students may find it refreshing, or revealing, to see what a professor, this professor, truly feels. But ultimately students are not my intended audience. In truth, I'm not sure how I would characterize the audience I have in mind when I write. Other educators, I suppose, and those who know me personally. I'd love it if bureaucrats, legislators, tax-payers--the whole hoi polloi--would read it, though I seriously doubt my voice will ever reach so far. (I have been tempted to write to Time magazine and say, "Listen, you pay Joel Stein a shitload of money to be snarky and modestly amusing about nothing of importance: wouldn't you like to pay to get a column about education--something that actually matters--from someone who genuinely knows whereof she speaks?") But truly, my main audience is myself. Blogging has become part of my decompression at the end of the day, a way to reframe and remind myself why it's worth it to keep on fighting this rear-guard action against the hordes of marginal thinkers and slipshod users of this brilliant language, and the forces of our society that would have us believe that thinking is overrated and that cogent expression doesn't matter for shit. I'm just whistling past the graveyard, singing to the void....

Lordy dordy: this is a post of some considerable length--and I find I could keep going. Once I get on my hobby horse, it's hard to dismount. But I reckon I've galloped around enough for one night. Time to pause and reflect: dinner in the office and dance class? Or home and mental fluff until my eyes slam shut for the night? Decisions, decisions.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Maybe a bad idea

I find that I am once again facing the ferocious resistance I feel when it comes time to grade papers. I'm chipping away at first versions for the 102 classes, and I admit that the new process is speedier than the old--it takes me about half as long to grade a paper as it used to--but it's still extremely hard to apply my note to that particular grindstone. Yowch.

I did get all the papers for today's section marked and back to those who showed up (it was sort of an optional day, as the original syllabus said I'd cancel, but still, I'd hoped more students would take advantage of the opportunity, fool that I am). I was quite certain that I'd have plenty of time today to work on the papers for tomorrow's class, and that whatever I didn't get done today, I'd have plenty of time to work on tomorrow. Au contraire. I only collected 13 (out of what should be 24), and I graded five of them while I sat in the advisement office--but I'm now out of gas. When I got back to the office, I had a bunch of other bits I had to nail down lest they fall through the floor-boards (setting up adjunct observations, making sure I have handouts for the next few classes, making sure I have the right information in the right folders). And I rather blissfully forgot that I have an Assessment Committee meeting tomorrow morning at 10 (an hour plus I could have used). And now I've got two students from the short story class coming during club hour, the block from 11:30 to 12:45 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Usually that time is reserved for committee meetings, but I've scaled back so far on committees that I have many club hours free--and yet, with the students coming, that time is now effectively shot, too.

I'm glad the students are coming: they are worried about their reading journals as well as their next mini-papers, which are due on Wednesday. It's a good indication that they want the help, and I do not regret making myself available to them, as they are unable to get to my office hours. Yet the question now becomes, when do I grade the remaining papers for tomorrow's class? I'd try to gut through a few more tonight, but I know I've reached the point where I'm unlikely to be able to absorb what I'm reading, so the attempt would be counterproductive at best.

It looks like an early alarm is the answer. That decision may bite me in the ass, but I have faith that somehow it will all work out. ("How will it?" "I don't know; it just does. It's a mystery." Thank you, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.)

The short story class today was interesting. Again, it was optional, but more students took advantage of it (a sign of their maturity--and their concern about their grades). One of the students who is coming to see me tomorrow was close to tears: she said "This has always come easily to me before, and now it seems like I can't get anything other than a C." Oh, how I understand that frustration, that panic, the blow to the self-esteem. I reminded her that she now has a monster as a professor: my standards are extremely high, and I demand a lot. She was worried that we're already in October: I reframed that and said, no, it's early days yet: she has plenty of time to turn things around. I also said that she and I can figure out what she is doing and what she needs to do more of, or do instead. I think she feels better just knowing I will help her, am happy to help her.

On the other hand, the older student I am most worried about in that class was not there today. She finally submitted a reading journal--and not only does it bear no resemblance to the form I mandated, the content is merely a (rather crappy) summary. I do not want to humiliate her, but on the other hand, I do not believe she can possibly pass my class--or any class that actually requires her to read, write, and think. How brutally honest should I be? Here is a woman of a certain age, who has the courage to go to college, who wants to become a social worker--and who is (as far as I can tell) close to functionally illiterate. And who has gotten what I can only assume are mercy passes from her instructors before me. But it's no mercy: it just has kicked her problems down the road. I truly do not know how to approach her, what to say. She needs to know just how dire her situation is, but do I want to rob her of hope? No. I fret over this.

So the students who come to me to figure out how to move a C to a B or an A seem like manna from heaven by comparison. Yes, I'm demanding a kind of thinking they are not familiar with, have not had to engage in before: it's a whole new world, and they don't speak the language yet. But at least they're making the effort to get the help--and they have sufficient skills that I actually can help. Poor Mrs. Lost does not have the skills for me to even begin to work on.

Oh argh. But I will talk with Mrs. Lost. I'll have to trust to the inspiration of the moment, but I'll talk to her. It's the only thing I can do.

Shifting gears again to the more positive: one of the students I'll be meeting tomorrow sent me an e-mail (on my request) to remind me of our appointment (otherwise I'm likely to forget, as I didn't have my calendar with me to write it down). His message was not properly capitalized, or spelled, but it was cute: he said: "we have a date tommorow 11:30, your office ...dont break my heart :)." I assured him I would not jilt him. But you may begin to understand why he didn't do well on his mini-paper, and why he struggles with his reading journals. Even though I don't insist on any kind of correctness in journals, the systemic problems indicate a lack of something crucial, I believe.

Ah well. As a friend of mine and I used to say, onward and awkward. I'm going to do a little more organizing of folders and papers and flotsam, then steal off into the night.