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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.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

Fried. No, Flambeed

I was almost ready to fall asleep--or resort to chocolate--between Advisement and class, had to stop marking assignments, as I was unable to process anything I was reading, not to mention that I was getting systemically grumpy. What to do? Ah, I'll work on something that gets me excited. And indeed, I sat at the computer, began working on the sabbatical application, and felt the desired adrenaline surge. Working on the application morphed into working on the publishing proposal--also good for an energy surge. I rather wish I'd remembered to put the book review on my flash drive, so I could work on that instead, but the sabbatical thing is due sooner, so it does make sense to get it done first.

I got a good whack in on the book review over the weekend. I hope I have a chance to talk to my 102 students about my experience/process; they may realize that writing is not easy for anyone. I started to write, got some ideas down, and began to feel lost in a sea of possibilities--so I realized it was time to back away for a bit, let the murk subside. The next day I returned to it and was able to be much more clear. The problem is trying to fit everything I want to say inside the word limit (not something my students generally experience). I reached another impasse, as just as I was starting to run out of steam, I started wondering if I need to say something about every essay in the book or if I can simply mention the overall through-lines and  specifically refer to only a few of the pieces. But if I'm going to say something about every discrete part of the book in question, I'll need to cut a lot of what I wrote. I don't mind cutting my own writing--I have to do it all the time (I'm nothing if not verbose)--but I want whatever remains to do justice to the brilliant little book I'm reviewing. None of the ideas are completely, startlingly new, but the author's presentation is compelling, provocative in the best sense, beautiful and often funny. Can't beat that with a stick. (For those of you who are interested: Shell of the Tortoise, by Don McKay. Ecopoetics, geopoetry. Very cool beans.)

In any event, I did get the requisite energy boost from working on the various proposals, so although I knew my brains actually were fried, I arrived in Fiction Writing ready to go--and the students were metaphorically lying about like so many flounder. They were beyond fried: no brain energy at all, or so little that it was submerged and stifled by the vast weight of inertia in the room.(Flounder flambe?) Part of the lack of energy can be put down to the fact that most of them were unenthused by the story we'd read--but when I dropped discussion of the story and opened the door for them to talk about their revisions, there wasn't much improvement in the enthusiasm level. A few students asked a question or two--good ones, I admit--but no real takers. I talked to them briefly about their next stories, told them to let me know if anything they read inspires an idea, either an "I'd like to try that" or a nice bank shot into something different. Still very little in the way of enthusiasm. I again made the offer of allowing them to critique one of my stories, and they perked up a little at that: they like the idea. I need to figure out whether we'll do that instead of (or along with) one of the readings, or if we'll add mine to the next workshop round (the former, I'm guessing, for time reasons). But with still about 20 minutes of class time to go, it became very clear that, short of resorting to a cattle prod, I wasn't going to get anything more out of them, so I let them go. (Didn't break my heart to be out early either.)

I was very happy that, as I was wrapping up the class, one student asked if he could make an announcement and told the others about the first meeting of the Creative Writing club, which will be tomorrow. Several were taking notes, clearly planning to go. Nice. And two stayed after class to ask me about specific portions of their revisions. I had suggested to one student that she try to find a more unique way to describe the moment for a character, and she didn't know what I meant. I told her I could have read exactly those words in any number of places (hackneyed, cliched), and when I pointed to specific phrases, she heard what I meant and said, "Well, I guess you can tell what I read." Yep: romances. I knew it, but it was amusing to have that confirmed. The other wanted more information about how to provide back story or context without simply telling it, how to drop the needed bits into the dialog or whatever--and how to determine how much is needed. She has some good impulses: her story surprised me, being a lot stronger than I'd have expected. So I'm very glad she's looking to make it even better.

It was also good to talk to the whole class about developing voice, the need to read, as much and as many different things as possible, and to listen to the world around them. I start to realize a similarity between writing fiction and acting: one needs to be able to get into the skin, hear the voice, of each character, or it falls flat. One student noted that all the stories the class had written were sad or upsetting and asked about that; yes, I said, it's easier to write about dramatic events, which usually means unhappy ones, than it is to write about happiness. Not that it can't be done--it can, and beautifully--but it's not as easy to find the real stakes, the drama, in being happy. (Joy, maybe; happy, not so much.) One asked how to make her dialog sound less immature. Several suggestions: one, listen carefully to people around you, how they talk; two, don't write chit-chat, but write what has real emotional stakes behind it (OK, sometimes the subtext of chit-chat is pretty powerful, but that's a lesson for another time); three--and perhaps most important--shut up the inner critic and just write.

But speaking of that desire for more maturity in her writing--which came from Ms Romance Novel--she noted with admiration and envy the writing of the young man who did the deceptively simple story I enjoyed so much. Perfect entree for me to note that part of my instructions for their first story--routinely ignored--was to write one specific, telling event. Oh, their faces said; we forgot about that. Another student complained about the length limitations, but I told him that having to write short--really short--is an exercise in figuring out what matters most. I did remove the upper limit from their revisions and from their next stories: a minimum of four pages, period. But I did warn them to still keep it as tight and clear as possible: sticking within four to six pages is ferocious practice in discipline. (And, Prof. TLP, take note for yourself: if it's good advice for them, it's good advice for you, too.)

But I natter. I am going to cancel the rest of my evening office hour (not that anyone will show up: people see me by appointment only)--and I'm getting out of here. I don't know whether I'll be stronger tomorrow, but I hope I'll be more rested, and can leap into the work in the morning with verve and enthusiasm.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The gloves are off--well, mostly

It was one of those days when I was relatively fierce about the rules. Two students had not submitted their papers before the deadline yesterday--and I told them that 20% of their final grade is now a zero. One of them very cheerfully said "OK." I suggested she consider withdrawing, though I wouldn't throw her out of the class, and she said, "OK." OK then. I'll be interested to see if she decides to stick it out or bails. She's also missed a number of classes and has submitted almost no work of any kind, so she's better off withdrawing--but it's her call.

The other student in that position has been making excuses and asking for exceptions all semester, and he tried to pull the "I was sick" and "I'm really sorry" cards--and I wasn't taking either one. Yes, I know you were sick and that's why your paper wasn't in class on Tuesday, but that's why I gave everyone until yesterday: why wasn't it there yesterday? And if you were having a problem, why didn't you contact me about it, instead of simply assuming that the deadline didn't matter? He uploaded his paper today--sorry, buddy, too late--and he didn't have a printed copy at all. He whined and squirmed and begged, and I was implacable. "I know you're sorry. So am I. But the deadline passed. You've just learned a painful lesson that deadlines are real." He didn't come back to class; I suspect he'll withdraw. He should: not only did he not turn in his paper, I have received no work from him to date. He told me he had all his logs and everything--but I said sorry, too late. I am not going to spend my time playing catch up because you can't meet deadlines.

I think I mentioned yesterday my difficulty deciding what to do with the student who did upload her paper to TurnItIn on time but didn't get a printed copy to me. She sent me an e-mail--20 minutes before class began--saying she had the printed copy with her and was that OK. I didn't get her e-mail until after class, so as I lectured her in the hall, I said she should have contacted me earlier about getting the printed copy to me. I will have to disabuse her of the notion that "I had to work" does not excuse her from deadlines for my class, but the whole lock-down thing did put a wrinkle in the situation. With that in mind, I decided I'd take the printed copy, provide feedback--but she only gets one day to revise: I told her she can pick it up for my comments Monday after 10 a.m.

She acts like a good student, but reading her paper, I realize that although there may be ways in which she is good, she can't write a college-level paper to save her life. I've seen worse train-wrecks, but it is pretty much a tossed together mess. Well, she'll either be able to salvage it in revision or she won't.

I will say, all the students in 102 were absolutely pole-axed by their "grades": the indication of what the paper would receive if what they'd submitted were the final version. They were relieved as hell when they finally understood that those grades don't "count": all that matters is the final product (and their engagement with the revision process). But it was like looking at a room full of people who'd just been tazered. I got pretty fierce when they were asking "Did anyone get a B? Did anyone get an A?" I honestly don't remember if anyone got a B--I think there was at least a B- in there somewhere--but an A? Nope. I drew the bell curve on the board for them: "Most of you should be right here," I said, firmly drawing the lines on either side of the top of the curve--showing that that part lands right on the C. "A C is for average work. You're used to grade inflation; you're used to average work getting a B. It doesn't. An A is for excellence: not just good, excellent." Smack, smack with the 2x4 against their minds. "This isn't high school. This isn't 'just' community college. You're getting an Ivy League quality education in this room. And all of you can do that." Oooo, a challenge. The gauntlet is down.

A lot of them were saying, "This is hard!" I confirmed that they were right about that. Damned straight: it's the hardest part of writing. If you feel like you are about to bleed out your ears, you're on the right track. It's supposed to be hard.
So, we'll see where they are on Tuesday, when version two is due.

The Mystery class was fun (of course)--even though I tossed out four or five people who were there without books, without having done the reading. No book? No notes? OK, see you next class. One student who has been absent as often as present and hasn't been turning in much of anything said he thought he'd withdraw; I said I thought that was a good idea. It was a pleasant enough exchange--no hard feelings on either side, I don't think (certainly not on mine)--but yes, he's right, he should go. Another student came to see me after class: his work has been sketchy at best and he's also had problems with attendance--but he swears he's got a handle on work plus job now, so OK. Keep on fighting the good fight. I will be surprised if he pulls through, but I've been surprised before. Earlier in the semester, I didn't think the lights were on there at all, but in our little talk after class, there was certainly an awake mind behind those eyes. Good. I hope he does make it; I love surprises (well, the nice ones).

Even more pleasant was that several students finally, finally, finally have the hang of what they need to record in their notes. O, hallelujah.

I also feel pretty well caught up. There are a handful of assignments I need to mark for both 102 and Mystery, but I'm pretty sure I can knock those off on Monday--though if they spill over into Tuesday, no problem; I'll only be collecting some notes from the Fiction Writing students, and those are a breeze. That means that I can spend this weekend either working on the book review I need to write (maybe I'll even finish the book) or working on the sabbatical application--or both. Everything else--scheduling adjunct observations, looking at Taskstream, whatever else on my list of tasks--can wait until next week. It's still light out, and I, my friends and faithful readers, am going home.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grey areas

As I'm working through this new process of collecting/responding to papers in the 102 class, I'm discovering some grey areas that I'm not sure how to handle just yet--specifically, what to do about the students who upload their papers (late) to TurnItIn but do not follow through on getting a printed copy to me by the deadline stipulated in the assignment handout. Two of the students I thought were falling down on that requirement came through at the last minute (I just looked on the office door, and Lo!), but one was not in class yesterday, has not contacted me, uploaded her paper, and otherwise is invisible.

I'd be inclined to simply tell her she's missed the boat on the assignment, that she gets a zero for the whole thing--but the situation is complicated by the fact that, for about three hours, the campus was on lock-down: there had been a shooting at the nearby mall; police didn't know where the shooter had gone, and so, to be safe, we were to stay huddled up inside--and roads into and out of campus were sealed off. Consequently, it's possible she was afraid to come to campus or that her only window to get here was during that crucial few hours. I sent her an e-mail letting her know that, because of the lock-down, I'd be willing to accept the printed copy as long as it's on my office door before 10 a.m. tomorrow--but somehow I think she's not checking her e-mail. She's been absent more than she's been present anyway, and is missing a lot of work, so even though it would surely seem horribly harsh to her, it may be best if I cut her loose now: she's in the process of sabotaging her grade anyway, and I don't want to give her rope just so she can metaphorically hang herself.

This is one of those situations in which I will simply have to see how things transpire. Similarly, one young man has (he tells me) been dealing with a family crisis in North Carolina, so he wasn't able to come to class yesterday. I told him that I'd make a special dispensation and print his paper for him, as long as he uploaded it by 6--but at about 5:20, I found an e-mail from him stating that he hadn't been able to find my class on TurnItIn. Ahem: that's because he hadn't created an account, didn't have the class ID number or password. I'm holding on to my patience here, but I confess I'm beginning to question his competence. In any event, I bent the rules again: I said I'd give him until midnight to upload the paper--but I want him to bring me the printed copy tomorrow morning. I've not heard from him, but I may still.

In any event, if I get those two papers mentioned above, I will have eight to grade tomorrow. That's do-able--just. The new system is, in many ways, much easier, but--as Paul said--there is a limit to how far we can whittle down the time it takes to read a paper with attention and respond even with the minimal comments I'm providing. (Well, minimal for me: still more than given by many of my colleagues.) That limit seems to be about 20 minutes per paper. I could perhaps shave a few more minutes off that if I go back to typed stock responses ("The body of your paper contains good thesis points that are not expressed in your thesis..."). I had a bunch of those last year, but they were too long and complex. If I go back to typed comments, I need to make them brief--and usefully generic, so I'm not compelled to customize for each student. Still, I did find myself writing some comments over and over--slightly different wording, but the same substance. And on every single paper so far, the primary comment has been somewhere between "you need a stronger thesis" and "you need a thesis--period." I had high hopes for several of the papers, as the students are very bright in class, but I was disappointed in each case. Maybe there will be a pleasant surprise in store tomorrow.

It was refreshing, however, to write, "Cut the first [however many] sentences of your introduction. They're unsupported generalizations, so get rid of them." That should be more clear than the generic "No big generalizations" comment I've used in the past. Apparently, most students wouldn't know a generalization if it were twined about their ankles. That, or the habit of starting with generalizations is simply too deeply ingrained for them to recognize and let go. After all, we don't recognize our own verbal tics until someone points them out: similar concept, I think.

It was also refreshing to utterly ignore the sentence-level stuff on this round. There are sentence problems every-damned-where, though so far they are not as horrific as I've had to deal with in the past. (Luck of the draw? Or are we preparing students better?)

I had much more frightening moments reading stories for the Fiction class yesterday. One poor young woman wrote a story about witch hunters in the 15th century in Europe--and it was bad enough that the story was filled with historical lunacy and that they all talked like 21st century college students from America. Worse, though, were some of her malapropisms. Case in point: "The flowers [in the putative witch's garden] were herds or healing plants. ... They were special herds that will help your arm heal and will stop affections from spreading."

I'm not sure why one would have a hard time telling livestock from plants, but it's good to know there are farm animals that can help keep affections under control: we can't have people (or animals) feeling fond willy-nilly, must guard against unchecked contagion of warm feeling....


But, as for today, the workshop process went well. That young woman's story was one of two that did not get critiqued aloud by the class, though she and the other student got written feedback from us all (and they'll be first up in the next workshop sessions). Of the stories we went over today, there were two that I absolutely loved. One was delightful to me, but as I read it, I kept thinking, "Oh, half the class is going to be completely, utterly lost trying to read this." I called it E. R. Edison meets Douglas Adams: the other students didn't know the references, but the author did. I found it funny, but I can understand why for many of the students the language presented an impenetrable thicket. The other story I loved was by the student who had been worried about being stuck--and who got un-stuck when I suggested he practice writing as badly as he possibly could. His story was on the opposite end of the spectrum: very realistic, clean, spare prose. His last two one-sentence paragraphs were lovely. (I wish I could remember them verbatim: when I collect the revisions, I hope they will be unchanged--and I hope I remember to share them with you all.) The rest of the stories ran the gamut from good to dull as dirt, with various jaunts through the trite, hackneyed, cliched, and treacly.

But, the focus in that class is on revision, as in the 102, so we'll see what they can accomplish now that they've had feedback--and a chance to critique others' works. That can be more beneficial, sometimes, than hearing the critique of one's own.

I'm missing yoga class tonight, partly because I wanted to get a few more papers graded, largely because my back is kicking up a fuss again (for no earthly reason that I can tell)--and that's added to last night's migraine, which woke me at 3 and kept me awake until 4:45 (I turned off the alarm at that point, let myself sleep all the way until 7:30). I'm amazed I've been able to function as well as I have, as long as I have. I'm now running on the manic energy I summon up to get through days like today: but that particular energy is hard to let go so I can glide into the evening. Still, the sooner I'm out of here, the sooner I can try to pull my little bulldog teeth out of the day. We'll see about that 6 a.m. alarm tomorrow. I hope I can stick with it; I suspect I'll need to get into campus that early to be sure I have all the papers ready for class. But my resolve may waiver--or my risk-taking side may assert itself.

It will be interesting to see how tomorrow goes, doing in-class review of papers in 102. Stay posted.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

First big "oops" of the term

So, in writing yesterday about the time crunch in the 102 class assignments, I forgot that I had scheduled a homework assignment that I needed to hand out today--and that I didn't have. In order to give the students some experience with handling (and recognizing) critical material, I have a couple of critical essays included in their readers. Usually, I give them a series of study questions on each essay, intended to help them understand how to use the critical material as support for their arguments. I have to admit, the exercise has never worked very well. I have yet to figure out how to make clear when/where/how/why to use secondary sources. When students asked me about it in class today, I said for them not to worry about it for next class, and I'd figure out what to do.

What I decided is to scrap the requirement to use critical material in their second papers. I'm still recommending it, but it's not required--and between now and when I give them the assignment, I eliminate even the suggestion of it from the assignment. I realize it's one too many things to toss into the mix right now. It's going to be enough of a challenge for them to juggle revising their papers and logging about the poems--and hard enough for them to leap immediately from paper 1 to paper 2--without adding the essays and study questions into the mix.

This does, however, point to a problem with this new system of revision: this time crunch is not a good thing, and I'm unhappy about it. Somehow, when I made up the schedule of assignments, it didn't seem so terrible: we'd just switch from one to the next. But I realize we're going to miss a lot of time talking about the poetry as we work in class on their revisions--plus there's just the difficulty of compartmentalizing, and the fact that students are all too easily overwhelmed. The aim was to help them, not to make them feel that the work is impossible to manage. (Difficult, ok, but impossible, not good.)

I just went back to the schedule of assignments and took another look. It's all tight, but removing the critical essays from the mix will help--and I did leave room for discussion of the poems we're reading this week to spill into next week. I truly do think that the in-class work on revision is going to be helpful: I will be there to answer questions, make suggestions, whatever the students need to get rolling. And, as I think about it, I am persuading myself that I need to let it roll exactly as I'd structured it (sans the critical stuff) so I can see how it goes. If I start making changes before I've tried it out, I won't be able to accurately assess whether the process works.

So, tomorrow I leap into reading/marking those papers. Of course, I'll get some late, and there is some foo-raw over the submission to TurnItIn stuff--apparently my instructions about deadlines were not clear, but I've clarified them, I hope, for the second essay. Since I'm feeling my way, I'm willing to take responsibility for misunderstandings and make an adjustment so the students don't suffer.

I know that part of why I'm madly second-guessing myself is that I'm tired. I gambled this morning and sort of lost: I thought an extra hour of sleep would increase my efficiency sufficiently that it would be a wash--and that wasn't the case. Part of the problem was that I'd blissfully forgotten about the P&B meeting. I came close to bailing on it--and I kept hoping it would end early (and it could have, but for a very long-winded answer to a random question about something not on the agenda, and a few other digressions). But in the event, I had to finish reading the stories for tomorrow after the Mystery class--and didn't finish until almost 8 p.m. So I'm still here (it's 8:22 as I write this sentence). I need to get home, as I truly do need to take a running leap at that stack of papers tomorrow. I am wildly hoping that the new process works, but I don't know yet, won't until I try it--and don't want to get caught so short of time that I have to come in at 5 a.m. on Thursday or some ungodly thing.

Therefore, this is yet another post that I'm going to fling up onto the blog, unread, unrevised, just as raw as raw gets. Well, I never guaranteed polish, I reckon.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Not bad, not bad...

Pretty good day, all in all, in fact. I was especially happy with the workshop experience in the Fiction class. We didn't get through as many stories as I'd hoped, so I suspect there will be several students who won't get the experience of hearing critiques this first round--though they'll still get written comments from everyone--but I'll make sure those students go first in the second workshop week. Of course, I could be surprised: we could whip through the remaining eight stories on Wednesday, but I'm not counting on it. Before class, while I was still in Advisement, I was concerned enough about the progress we'd make that I started revising the assignment schedule, adding an extra day of workshopping to each session--which meant ditching readings and was causing something of a train-wreck at the end of the semester, as I needed one more week than we actually have--but I decided to stick with the original schedule and plan. Saved myself some fuss and feathers--and the students seem OK with it.

More to the point, they did very well at actually offering critique: they were good at picking up on the problems in each other's stories, making suggestions, pointing out what they liked, framing their suggestions in a helpful and collegial fashion. At first, everyone was very hesitant to begin the critique process (and would have been similarly hesitant about being critiqued; fortunately, however, "Tyra" had already volunteered to be the first "victim" and was eager to go)--but once they got a sense for how the process works, they got downright eager, truly enjoying it. Well, most of them, anyway.

I haven't finished reading all the stories yet; I've got most of the homework for tomorrow's classes marked, so after I polish that off (shouldn't take long at all), I'll read and comment on the remaining stories (six of them). I am not worried about it; I'm sure I have sufficient time--but I absolutely have to finish them up before classes tomorrow. After tomorrow's classes, I'll be buried in 102 papers for the next two days. I'm curious to see if my new process saves time--and is more effective in producing results. Even if it only does the former, I'll be glad, but if it also accomplishes the latter, I may have to throw a party--or at least use it as an excuse for a steak blowout with Paul.

In terms of making my process easier, I'm on the fence about whether to use the online comment tools offered by TurnItIn or to stick with my trusty pen. If I have time to dick around enough to figure out how to do the online commenting, it may save me even more time/effort (I type a hell of a lot faster than I write by hand--and it's easier to read: bonus). Even if I don't manage to do my commenting online this round, I may try it on Paper 2. Maybe. We'll see. (One of my mantras.)

My 102 students are going to hate me for the next six weeks or so. First, they're going to have to split their focus for three weeks, alternately reading/logging poetry and working on their papers. Then, the week after their final version of paper 1 is due, they have to turn in their first version of paper 2--after which they have to alternate between revision and editing steps on paper 2 while they read the first chapters of The Left Hand of Darkness. I've tried to assign smaller chunks of reading during that process, but the split focus is going to require good compartmentalization skills on their part. Once paper 2 is completed, however, they're going to be grateful I hustled them through that process, because they'll be able to turn their attention exclusively to the novel: read/log/glossary, read/log/glossary, until it's time to do their final papers--also on the novel.

I was thinking I'd prepare them for this ungodly slog--and reassure them that once they're though it, things will get (somewhat) easier--but on some consideration, I think it's better not to set up that negative anticipation. I know if I think too far down the road, mentally stacking up all the weighty tasks I have to manage, I begin to hyperventilate. But if I take each task as it comes to the top of the pile--and knock off the little stuff immediately--then I don't feel panic. I just keep on turning the crank, as my father used to say, grinding it out: routine. No fuss.

This is an attitude I've been trying to acquire for years, and I'm glad it's finally starting to become part of my default setting. I know I'll get all the work done--I always do--so I'm not going to worry about how I'll get it done. I've been talking that language for quite some time, but now I feel it. I'm genuinely not worried (or only for very brief flashes). I am busy, yes, grinding hard, but I feel much more efficient when I'm not fraught with nerves. Seems so obvious, doesn't it? Being relaxed is more productive than being tense. (Studies have been done....)

So, to continue in that vein, I'm going to take my relaxed little self home, and relax even more. Up and at 'em again on that "other" day, you know.... (qv. previous posts, "Scarlett O'Hara).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ah, nice.

First, the situation with the two students in 102 is resolved, and everyone is now clear and able to proceed with the work in an appropriate manner. I spoke with both students today, and both clearly stated that they are ready and able to leave non-academic matters outside the classroom and to keep the class itself a comfortable, professional space for learning. That's a wonderful relief: the situation was bothering me like mad yesterday, so it's lovely to have it taken care of.

I also astonished myself: I got every single assignment for both of today's classes marked before class--and took time to eat my lunch, too. Miracle of miracles. My slate is now clear for me to focus on critiquing the stories from the Fiction class. I will take them home over the weekend; I'll have some time on Monday to finish them, but I'm not sure yet how long the process will take, and I don't want to be in a sweat about having them done. Of course, I also collected homework from both my other classes, but many of the students in 102 opted to keep their logs on "Ile Forest" so they can refer to the logs as they work on their papers, so that press of work is minimized. The more clear the decks can be going into Tuesday afternoon and the submission of those 102 papers, the better.

Students in the Mystery class are running into their first experience of my grading, and many are alarmed to see that I consider a C average: if you earn a C, you're doing what I ask. You're not doing any more than that, but you're doing what's required. But they're used to that criterion applying to a B, not a C. Grade inflation, my dears: I refuse to add helium. On the other hand, I realize it's difficult to be told "give me more" when one is unsure what's wanted in the first place. If I get a good model of a "summation," I'll copy it and distribute for future reference--but they have another one due on Tuesday, and they're nervous. I need to put some thought into how to clarify what I want. Hmmm.

The actual experience in both classrooms was fine. I let both classes decide whether to work in groups or not, and both opted for not. The 102 students came through: at first, four or five voices dominated, but when I said I wanted to hear from more, more jumped in. I was particularly happy with how sprightly the discussion was, given that I'd just spent 45 minutes nearly bludgeoning them to death with paper preparation handouts and lecture. I don't like "chalk and talk" as a delivery system--it's almost always dull as dirt--but it is efficient in terms of the time it takes. There is an obvious problem however: getting through all of the information quickly does not generally lead to deep student comprehension. But at least I've tossed the pearls of wisdom in their direction. I hope that as they work through the process, I can simply point out the pearls again--"Remember when I said...?"--and that eventually they'll start picking up the pearls themselves.

(I would like to point out that these pearls I offer my students are not the same as the ones that clatter and bounce and fall through the floorboards when that metaphoric strand breaks and I stand amid the chaos, flummoxed. Similar, perhaps (as I do tend to think, "Where did that brilliant idea go?"), but not the same.)

The Mystery students were less able to work without the benefit of groups. The whole conversation about the second half of A Study in Scarlet was flat and torturous--apart from a very few contributions. There is one student in the class who may actually be better equipped to teach the class than I am: she is ambitious enough to research everything online (Doyle's profound distaste for Mormons, what a red herring really is, the mysteries written before Poe wrote the "first" mysteries...), and she is smart enough to challenge me when I'm not being clear or am over-simplifying. I'm grateful, and cheerfully welcome the corrections and amendments, but I am somewhat concerned that she wonders who the doofus is teaching the class. Apart from her contributions, however, there was very little of substance going on in the room. Still, some of that lack of conversation may have arisen because they wanted to get to watching the video: they knew we'd be watching "A Study in Pink," and there are already a few fans of the Sherlock series in the room, plus the rest were likely looking forward to being able to absorb passively for a change.

And, to my delight, they adored it. They were laughing, talking, gasping, going "ooooo": all the noises of a cheerful and engaged audience. One student kept looking at me to see my responses. Of course, I adore the series myself, so I was smiling (though not laughing, as I've seen it before, several times)--and when I was afraid they'd missed a clever moment, made sure to point it out. I let the video play a few minutes past the end of the period, so we could get to a good stopping point--but when I stopped, everyone groaned and  protested. Many asked if it's available on Netflix and say they're going to watch it over the weekend. Grand. I hope they get into the whole series.

There was also a sort of happy accident: because I couldn't figure out the remote (a student finally helped me see which buttons were the ones I needed--Gawd, I need my glasses!), the students ended up watching the trailer for Wallander, which, I told them, is also a great mystery series. A number expressed interest in that as well. Cool. The more mysteries they encounter on their own, the better. I want them to have fun with the genre and branch out. It's a fun genre.

Because their reaction to the video was so enthusiastic, I'm thinking about giving them the option to write a paper that does a comparison/contrast between the original and the reboot--but if they do, they need to have a reason for comparing/contrasting, so I'm thinking of saying they'd need to look at the socio-historical context of each, and discuss how the differences and similarities reveal something about that context. Not easy, I know, but there needs to be some academic merit to what they're writing.

I was thinking about the class in general today--both my electives, in fact--because we're already picking dates for scheduling committee meetings (in January and May), which got me thinking about courses I'd like to schedule for myself to teach. If I can, I'd like to teach either of these electives again next fall. (The chances I'd be able to teach both are vanishingly remote.) It always helps me to teach a course a couple of times in close succession, so I truly have a good handle on it.

Then, because worry is my default setting, started feeling concern that I asked to teach Nature in Lit in the spring, and it's always a struggle to get it to run--at least when I teach it. (My reputation as a draconian nightmare? Or the way I publicize the class? Both? Who knows.) On the other hand, our spring schedules are not official yet--Bruce and Allen are still tinkering with them--so I am not absolutely sure I got it. I was annoyed that Bruce scheduled both Nature and Lit and Native American Lit at the same day/time, so I can't have one as a fall-back for the other--or, as happened one glorious semester--teach both. Damn his eyes. But I did leave him a note, asking him to avoid that conflict in the future. Of course, in spring 2015, I hope like hell I'm on sabbatical, so he could offer everything I love to teach at exactly the same day and time, and with luck it won't matter at all.

But that's way, way in the future, and I need to bring my attention back to here and now. Here and now, I am very tired and very hungry (not surprisingly)--and it would be utterly lovely to get out of here while there is still some light in the sky: the days when that will be possible are rapidly disappearing (and even now, it's rare, as I'm usually not out the door until 8 or after). So, I'll grab my little bags and toddle off into the gloaming.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I need a reframe, and badly. Right at the moment, I'm feeling hag-ridden by all the work piling up--and with the anticipation of what's going to be coming at me in the next few weeks. I deeply hope that my new method of responding to 102 papers helps, but I also know that this weekend I will have to take work home with me--or come to the office. In addition to all the work I want to try to return tomorrow--or at least by Tuesday--I have to read and respond to all the stories submitted by the Fiction students before that class on Monday. I can't do as my students can, and read some for Monday and the rest for Wednesday, because Tuesday and Wednesday, I'm going to be buried in papers from the 102 class.

True, I only had to meet with one student in Advisement today, so I could mostly just grind away at marking assignments (and was not, I confess, very good about the "no comments" rule). But I still have quite a few to mark for the 102 tomorrow. The Mystery students may have to wait until Tuesday to get their assignments back. I don't want to hold onto those too long--I need to avoid a collision with those 102 papers, plus more work from the Fiction students--but they don't need their work back as urgently as the other classes do.

On top of which, today started with a departmental Assessment meeting--which I'd blissfully forgotten all about, until I got here. I was so proud of myself for arriving on campus at the stroke of 9:00 (literally: the tower bells were ringing); then I opened my calendar to make one appointment before diving into the work--and there it was: "Assessment, 9:30." Sotto voce swearing ensued, and a slight bit of flinging (the calendar flung onto the desk, and a pen, but nothing else thrown, so it wasn't a full-fledged hissy fit). The meeting took a two-hour bite out of my work time. It also silted up my "to-do" list with precisely the kind of tasks I most particularly loathe. Many of our most helpful committee members are on sabbatical, and while I am glad for them, I want more than anything to drag them away from their wonderful projects and get them in just to help us with this mishigas.

The meeting was unusually painful in its own right, too. Assessment is never fun; it's a sort of hostile take over of our process by corporate principles (as if those corporate principles applied to education), and so there is a perpetual clash of ideologies and approaches that we're trying to work through, satisfying the necessary requirements without allowing the tail to shake the dog to palsy. But today it was even worse because we literally were not all on the same page. Pretty much all of us have utterly forgotten the discussions from last year's meetings--and the bits of information we specifically needed were not in the minutes. Further, we had too many pieces of paper, all with slightly different purposes, focuses (foci?), and formats: it was simply chaotic. Herding cats would be a breeze by comparison.

I profoundly hope that by the next meeting we have a better handle on things. Usually Bruce and I can communicate just fine, but in this meeting, I don't think either of us understood what the other was trying to accomplish--and since he chairs the meetings and I have the biggest mouth, that static filled the whole room and affected everyone's thinking. If I can be more clear next time, that should help. But part of that development of clarity means I need to revisit Shitstorm, I'm sorry, I mean Taskstream, to remind myself of its limitations and requirements. We can collect our assessment data in any way that is useful for us, but in terms of reporting the data, we are required to use Taskstream, and it is, no surprise, a corporate product and thus supremely unhelpful and idiotic to navigate. So whatever data we come up with, we have to be sure we have a clear way to put it into a form that Taskstream will accept--and right at the moment, I'm the person not on sabbatical who has the most Taskstream experience.

Oh argh.

In any event, after the hive-inducing experience of that meeting and all that it added to my work load, turning my mind to marking student work was a challenge, added to which was my increased anxiety about the lack of time. However, even with the truncated amount of time I had, I ran into the brain-lock experience (looking at words on a page but nothing is registering in my mind)--and I felt the rising irritation I feel when I spend too much uninterrupted time on one grading task. However, I hope to have a wodge of time in which to complete the work tomorrow morning. I've triple-checked my calendar: I truly do not have a meeting. But I'm in the mode in which I obsessively count how many pieces of paper remain to be marked, how much time I'm spending on each, trying to calculate how many hours I need.

We also got the deadline for submission of applications for sabbatical to our P&B: October 7. Of course, they don't have to be completed by then, but the more I have nailed down by that point, the easier my life will be as the college-wide deadline approaches (that's in December). As a member of P&B, I am grateful that my own application recuses me from having to read anyone else's, which lightens my course load. On the other hand, I'm mentoring two people through promotion (assuming there will be promotions), and there are about six new adjuncts who need to be observed, plus faculty going up for promotion, plus problematic faculty, both full-time and adjunct--and I need to manage the observations of the new faculty, at least find people to help me out if not do them myself. (And I don't even remember who the new adjuncts are: I need to add that to the list of things to do, get the list from Bruce's office aide.)

So why, you might ask, am I spending time blogging? Because I need that reframe. I need to get my mind back into a place of calm and clarity, in order to reduce my stress levels and in order to face all of this in a more relaxed--and thus more productive--manner.

Therefore, what was good today? Well, I walked into a lively conversation in the Fiction class--and they kept right on talking as I got everything organized. I love that. One student was more than a bit pissy about having to read his classmate's stories--too much work, too much time--but he backed down very quickly, and he was very sweet about coming to me at the end of class to talk about the literary elements I had suggested as a place to start when we read fiction to explore the craft. Much more delightful, the pretty cheerleader type--I'll start calling her Tyra, after the character in Friday Night Lights--is over the moon about reading everyone's stories. She can't wait to do it, and she asked if there was a way she could keep the longer stories to finish reading, if she can't read the whole thing before she has to return it to the author. (Most of the stories aren't over the 4-6 page limit anyway--if any are--but since I've told the student they only have to read the first 4-6 pages and respond to those, she's preparing.) It was lovely to see her practically bouncing out of her seat with eagerness to start reading what her classmates have written.

On a more personal level--though it is also part of my reframing process--I am, by God, going to go to yoga tonight. I want to get into that practice regularly, and I feel that the 90 minutes of being focused simply on breathing and moving will be profoundly beneficial in helping me lower the sails and drift into night-time. I can't stay here and work more, and I won't be home until after 8:30, but it will be worth it, I'm quite sure.

And tomorrow is, as we all know, another day. Which is when I'll think about all this again. (You know, "tomorrah, when Ahm strawngah.")

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Tonight, I got an e-mail from the male student I mentioned earlier; he'd read the blog and was, naturally, upset about it, as what he describes as having occurred is completely different in every regard from what the young woman described. As he tells it, this isn't simply a matter of her reading more into his behavior than was there: as he tells it, she is essentially inventing the entire thing. He was there, at the restaurant, but not looking for her, and only talking about class when he did talk to her--and, he says, she drew attention to her shirt and the restaurant logo.

It seems my only option is to give both of them the benefit of the doubt, as much as that's possible. It's like Roshomon: what the "truth" is depends on whose version of the story we listen to. The main thing is for me to find a way to keep both students in my class--and to have them both feeling comfortable. Anything that compromises the educational environment is a problem; if it isn't doing that, it's none of my business. I cannot be in the business of trying to determine whose story is more "true," whom to believe, or believe more fully.

I've not encountered anything like this before, so clearly I need to think very carefully about how to proceed. And I won't say more about it in the blog. The issue is too sensitive, and the potential for misunderstanding and upset too great.

The onslaught begins

I just put all the piles of student assignments to be marked in a folder, so A) I have them all in one place and B) so I can schlep them to Advisement with me--and hope to hell there is NO ONE in advisement, so I can just put my head down and work. Thank God I don't have a committee meeting on Thursday: if I can get my fanny out of bed at 6 (instead of giving myself until 7, as I did this morning (bad girl)), and if I'm not inundated with students during my office hour (which I may be), I have a fighting chance of getting everything back to students when they need it for the next thing. I'm particularly concerned that the 102 classes get their logs and their self-evaluations back, both as prep for their papers that are due on Tuesday. They may well need the logs for their papers--and I want them to see an evaluation of their writing before they begin in earnest.

I am going to have to take a page from Paul's playbook and deny my impulse to comment. Well, unless the student has gone seriously astray: then a course correction may be needed. But the overall comments about how to improve quality? No time for that. If any student is curious about why his or her logs are getting the grades they are, it behooves that person to come see me to talk about it.

I was absolutely mobbed by students after 102. Several are already bumping up against attendance limits, falling seriously behind on the work, and I needed to issue a warning about that. Two had personal matters they wanted to go over. One student--seems very intelligent, is doing good work so far--asked for more time to do her log, as last night her father told her that his chemo hasn't been working and the treatment for his cancer needs to be more aggressive and include long stays in the hospital. I didn't get the sense that the story was bullshit, but one never knows. Still, as always, I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt. Sure, I said: take the time.

The other student with a personal issue has presented me with a stickier problem. Apparently, one of the male students in class went to her workplace looking for her (she was wearing her work shirt to class, with the name of the restaurant embroidered on the front). He went on Friday, when she wasn't there--and went again on Saturday, when he started asking her a lot of personal questions. She is, frankly, freaked out by it, as it feels very stalker-like to her. It is possible that the male student had nothing more in mind than an expression of friendly interest, but the behavior is, I agree, extreme. She feels she can't talk to him herself to ask him not to contact her outside of school, because she's afraid he'll simply deflect what she says, or turn it back on her: "That's now how I meant it" sort of response. I asked her if she wanted me to speak to him directly, tell him that she'd spoken to me--and she said yes.

Ooof. This is when I find it difficult to determine where the line is between "they're adults and need to take care of themselves" and "they're still very young and don't have very good skills at dealing with complex, difficult situations--so they need help." I do not want the young woman to drop the class, but she's already making noises that way, unless the male student leaves her alone. I don't much want the man to drop either, as he has potential as a very good student. But this extracurricular behavior is creating an atmosphere in the classroom that is not congenial to a focus on learning, and somehow I need to try to put a stop to it.

One never knows, though. This man in question seems reasonable and mature enough to understand that, whatever his intentions may have been, his behavior needs to change as it is adversely affecting someone else. But I barely know him--or her for that matter--so heaven knows how he'll respond to my talk with him. I will, of course, have to try to ensure that they're not in groups together for a while, at least until she starts to feel she can handle working with him as a mature adult, without the personal dis-ease getting in the way. But I can only manage what happens in my classroom: I'm powerless about the world outside, and I can't ensure that he leaves her alone. I hope that simply talking to him is enough to put a halt to it. And I won't try to strategize anything beyond that initial conversation. If more action is required, I'll figure it out then--but with any luck, nothing more will be needed.

Shifting to more pleasant ground, however: the class discussion today on "Ile Forest" was terrific. It's been a long time since I've had to stop a conversation in mid-flow because we were out of time--but the students were not only surprised that the period was over, I think many of them were disappointed. Honestly, I was too. I'd have loved to keep that animated discussion rolling for as long as they could maintain it.

A similar experience in Mystery today, though in that case, the students were clearly running out of gas in the last few minutes of the period. Still, I'd given them a lot of time for the class discussion, and it was pretty good. They're starting to begin to get a glimmer of an idea what they should be recording in their notes, so that's to the good. It will be fun to see where the class goes on Thursday, when we embark on part 2 of A Study in Scarlet. And on Thursday, we're scheduled to start watching the BBC/PBS Mystery Sherlock episode "A Study in Pink." However, I've scheduled three days for possible viewing, and it surely won't take all that, so if the discussion is rolling, I'll wait on the video until next week

I do have to report a slightly more unhappy student moment today. A young man from the Mystery class came to my office hour just before their first "summation" assignment was due to ask me if he was on the right track. He was--but he stopped at what he'd shown me, rather than continuing to work. He got a C, which isn't bad, of course, but he came to me during class to ask me what he'd done wrong. I suggested he meet with me again, as I couldn't really get into it in class--but, I said, you didn't do anything wrong, you simply didn't do enough. I think he's upset because he feels, "I did what you told me, and you gave me a bad grade." What I need to make clear--to the whole class, not just to him--is that simply doing what I tell them is enough for a C. If they want higher grades, they need to put a little more into their work.

So, today didn't have quite as much peach-juice down the chin, but it was still a good day, despite the few bumps. And it is now almost 8, which is when I'd hoped to be home, so I'd have even a tiny shot at getting into bed before midnight. Therefore, I am flinging this up on the blog unread (which is happening more often than not these days) and making a mad dash for the door.

Monday, September 16, 2013

I really do love my job.

That's not at all facetious; today was one of those days in which my interactions with the students were across the board lovely. OK, yes, I was marking logs for the 102 class, and OK, yes, they were generally relatively dull--but the students are learning, and they're doing better, earlier, at getting the hang of what and how they need to log. It was a slog for me (the log slog), but I'm glad to see them finding their feet already. I'm still commenting rather heavily, hoping to affect further adjustments--and deeper thinking--and that's always a bit tedious. I find I'm saying variations of the same thing repeatedly, and eventually my mind rebels and says, "No more." I only have three more to mark for the 102, yet I can't bring myself to do them tonight. Tomorrow. And tomorrow for the reading notes from the Mystery class. Those I'm not marking as much: they count for less toward the students' grades, and I'm using the plus-check-minus system: only three options keeps me in check, so I'm less compelled to ask for adjustments.

But enough about that. That's all the routine stuff (and you, my faithful readers, have heard me go on about those at length often enough). Let me talk about the student interactions.

1.  A young man came into Advisement. I'd seen him my first day advising: he had signed up for a 9:30 class, not realizing it was 9:30 p.m., not a.m. He scrambled to find another class that would fit his schedule, and he ended up in Making of the Modern Mind, taught by one of my more erudite colleagues. He came to Advisement to find out if he could switch to a different class. The aides at the front desk told him no, his only option now is to withdraw--but he was worried about financial aid repercussions, so he was sent to me for more in-depth information.

I told him that he should check with the financial aid office: I believe that if a student stays in a class long enough, he or she is considered to have "made an attempt" at the semester and therefore can keep the financial aid, even if dropping a course drops the student's credits below a full-time load. But, I said, until you can withdraw--or perhaps even instead of withdrawing--while you're in the class, get the most out of it that you can. See your professor during her office hours, or make an appointment to see her: talk to her about your concerns. Work hard on the reading: circle words you don't know, but keep reading, trying to get what you can from context clues. Then, go back and look up the words you didn't know. Read slowly and carefully. Re-read. Truly grapple with the material.

I acknowledged the sense of panic at facing a daunting challenge--and that's why, I said, so many students have already fled the class. But I gave him the "work through frustration" speech, told him to get help (from Education and Retention Counseling, the professor, the Writing Center: wherever he can find it), to buckle down and slog (the word of the day, apparently). You may surprise yourself, I said. You may find that, when you work at it, you start to get it. This is a skill you need to learn, I said. Of course we all read better when we're reading what we like, what we chose, but the crucial thing is to be able to read anything well, no matter how difficult it is: a business contract, a mortgage, neither is fun reading at all, but as adults, we must deal read and understand anyway. Further, I said, imagine the triumph you'll feel if you get through this class, if you meet this challenge and prevail. He left with a sense of possibility and hope, determination even, dare I say. I hate the word, as it is so overused (and badly), but he felt empowered. I'd shown him that he has some power in this situation, things he can do actively on his own behalf instead of feeling helpless and inept.

I am proud of the way I handled that interaction. I did all the things I believe are right to do: I did not dismiss his difficulty, and I let him know he has a possible escape hatch--but I encouraged him to become an actual, real, live student and, perhaps, even something close to an adult.

2.  The struggling student from Fiction Writing came to my office today. I'd suggested that he see me for strategies for effective reading--and to my happy surprise, he did. It took a while for me to understand where his problem lies: it isn't that he loses focus so much as it is that he's reading too fast (trying to get it over with as quickly as possible, certainly--but also because students are perpetually, and incorrectly, told that it is good to read fast). I told him that both my office mates will say that they read slowly, and that there are times when I must, too. Again, I found myself acknowledging that what we read for pleasure is easier than what is "forced" on us.

I don't know what made me think of it, but I wanted to think of something physical he could do, some external behavior to aid his reading. I asked him if he read aloud to himself: yes, but it didn't help much. I scrambled, trying to think of something else, the I suggested he read with a pencil in his hand--not to annotate but simply to slow his eye down. We tried it out: Sitting here in the office, before I came up with that suggestion, he'd read the first few paragraphs of the story for today (which he hadn't yet read). I asked him what he'd gotten and the answer (not surprisingly) was not much. After we'd talked a while, he read them again with a pencil in hand, pointing at the words, and he admitted he noticed a lot more using the pencil. I reminded him that he was also re-reading, and that re-reading is a crucial academic tool. He left my office happier, feeling he had something to hold onto.

Of course, he also told me he couldn't be in class today, but ah well. If he can begin to read even a little bit better, I'll have given him something worthwhile.

3.  In class, I did tried to model the approach of looking at a piece of writing to notice what the author is doing and how, rather than to summarize or analyze thematically. The story was very short (W. P. Kinsella's "Horse Collars"), but it is a good example of "show, don't tell"--and of how much can be conveyed in a simple, well chosen detail. I thought the exercise was a bit of a bust, but the students seemed happy with it, and I let them go early. However, the one serious writer in the bunch stayed to talk. He's taken every creative writing class NCC offers; in fact this is his second time with Fiction Writing. But, he said, the more workshops he participates in, the less he writes and the less he likes what he writes. He knows all about how self-judgment stops us, how fear of others' judgment stops us--but he's more concerned that the other students just say, "I thought it was good" without giving him anything he can hold onto.

The main thing I got from listening to him was that he needs to shake himself up, so I suggested that he deliberately try to write really badly: try to produce the most unbelievably bad shit he can possibly come up with--and as much of it as he can. I told him he could even submit that for one of his assignments, because it would be very valuable to the whole class to focus on what doesn't work, to have a negative model instead of a positive one. I also suggested that I could instruct the other students to switch the usual practice in providing feedback to him: I could tell them to focus on what's wrong first, then tell him what works. I said he may be judging himself too harshly: we may see more good in his work than he can--but it could be very useful for all of us to sharpen the knives. He seemed not just willing to be the sacrificial goat but happy at the prospect. Yes, please: flay me alive! I didn't get any sense of masochism: I think he is mature enough, serious enough, that he's tired of being treated with kid gloves. In addition to shaking himself, I think he feels he needs a metaphoric slap in the face--or kick in the butt.

I told him that, in fact, I might give everyone the assignment to write something truly crappy. (Paul had a good caveat: it needs to be crappy on the sentence level; it defeats the exercise to simply come up with a stupid and implausible plot.) Even if we don't workshop it, the exercise might be very valuable for all of us. If I do that, however, I need to find some brief examples of truly dreadful writing. There are plenty out there--and plenty that aren't even spoofs but are produced in all seriousness and published with nary a sneer or wink; the problem, as always, is how to locate them and how to limit the choices. But even the spoofs might be useful: so overblown that even an untutored reader/writer can see the badness.

Back to Mr. Writer, however: we talked for about ten minutes, and he left feeling happier, comforted, supported--heard. He told me that he likes the way I've set up the class: read, write, workshop, revise, repeat. In other classes, the front part of the semester was loaded with reading, and all the workshopping happened in a concentrated push at the end. There is, he noted, an advantage to that, too, as it does force uninterrupted focus on the writing, but he likes having it broken up, breathers between the workshop sessions. (Me, too.) I'm very grateful to him for helping me see what the students need from a different angle; I think he's grateful that I'm so willing to work with him to try to give him what he needs as an individual. Win-win.

I glanced at their stories, by the way, and oy, gevalt. I have never liked the advice "write what you know," as it suggests writers are unable to imagine themselves into something very different from what they have experienced, which is patently untrue. However, their next story assignment may be much more close to home--because they all (or almost all) have done what inexperienced writers do, which is to overdramatize and overwrite like mad. It makes complete sense that they don't have much feel for voice yet--haven't developed their own and can't assume someone else's--but the wince factor just in the bits I've scanned is pretty significant.

I am grateful that my colleague Mary reminded me that all we can grade them on is their ability to incorporate feedback and revise. I need, too, to remember my own undergraduate attempts at fiction, which were wildly romantic and overwrought--and no doubt induced a gag reflex in the sweet professor who had to read them (and who was gracious enough not to tell me what unbelievable bilge I had produced). These students are just starting, and many of them also don't have much grasp of the intricacies of the English language. (Yeah, I know: hard to imagine budding writers who are profoundly deficient in awareness of the material of their craft, yet there it is.) But I do think I'll ask them to write the story of something very ordinary--a trip to the laundromat, or an afternoon with a friend--but to convey that experience as richly and with as much sensory detail as possible. (Could I do it? I should try it out before I assign it.) I've pointed out to them that often the most poignant moments in the stories we've read are expressed in very spare language, simple and unadorned--but the stories we've read have just enough heightened emotion that they encourage the tendency toward drama.

I'm hoping that the next reading assignments help counteract that tendency, but I do need to find other ways to address the issue. The problem really is that because the drama is overblown, it falls flat. So, how to get them to see that reining it in is actually more effective? Hmmm.

Obviously I'm very wound up about this (ye gods, woman, are you never going to end this post?). But I'm loving this. This is a juicy, rich, peach-nectar-down-the-chin semester. So far. But I'm not going to worry about what might go south: I'm just going to revel in this enjoyment.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chaos in a bag

The chaos is marginally contained at the moment. At the end of each class today, I simply shoved things into that class's folder and shoved the folder into my pack. Come Monday morning, I'm going to have a lovely time figuring out what the hell I have in there.

But backing up to before all that: I raced madly to get here in time to do the attendance check, worrying about being late, looking at my watch as I got closer and closer to campus. I drew up to the left turn on to campus (red light) and my cell phone began to ring: the office, saying Bruce didn't need me to do the attendance check. Equal measures of "well, fuck" and "oh, goodie!" in my heart at that news--but "oh, goodie!" triumphed: "Oh, goodie! I can get more work done!"

And I did. Got everything marked and ready to return--and fussed around with other flotsam as well, mostly to do with my potential sabbatical project and ASLE business. There's some "chaos in a bag" feeling about both of those things at the moment--but at least it's in a bag, not spewing all over the place, as often happens.

On the political front, the only news isn't really news: Bruce is going to take to our union executives the workload rationale that Kristin and I, and to a lesser extent two other colleagues, put together last year. It is no secret that the administration has the English department in its sights, wants to increase our teaching load. Kristin, god love her, did a lot of research and found that all the bodies that count say it's a terrible idea if maintaining any quality of education is a concern. (I'm not sure educational quality is a concern to this administration, but set that aside for now.) The feeling has been that the union is damned ready to throw us under the bus to facilitate a contract--and a lot of the campus would cheer, as they think we're spoiled brats. "I mark papers, too; I mark grammar, spelling and punctuation, too." As if that's all we do. I'd absolutely love to show some of the papers I've marked--even my new check list--to those faculty and say, "Yeah? Do you do all this, too? Because I do. On every paper, in every class."

Other faculty simply have no clue what we do--and they are known to say that we just need to teach the students to write better. OK. You first. You try it, see how you do. Just because you know how to write yourself (and many of them actually don't) doesn't mean you can teach someone else how to do it--especially not how to do it well.

OK, I'll get off that hobby horse now. But we're all on tenterhooks about this. If we go to a 5/5 load (five courses each semester), I personally will have to consider whether I can stay here or might need to find another job.

But, but, but. Nothing is known yet, so I'll burn that bridge as I cross it (or some such).

Much more important, today's classes were, once again, a blast. I simply have a whole different demeanor with the students than I've had in the past, and they respond to it, opening up like little happy anemones. A terrific sign in the Mystery class was that even as I took attendance, they were talking to each other with enough animation that I had to raise my voice to get them to listen up.

I did realize that there was some understandable confusion about the assignments, because of terminology I'd used in setting up the assignments. (Similar problem in 102: a number of students think the self-evaluation is their first big essay. Um, no: this is not Naval Gazing for College Students.) I'm rather bending over backward to help them get sorted out--and learning a fair bit myself for how to do it better should I teach the class in the future. I also realized that using only three marks--minus, check, or plus--on some assignments is almost physically painful for me. There are so many shades of grey between a minus ("you turned in something but it's pretty useless") and a plus ("brilliant!"), that lumping them all together under check seems unfair. But Paul assures me that it washes out in the end: that the good students don't suffer and the bad ones aren't given an inordinate boost. I'll take it on trust this semester, see if my experience matches his.

I liked how I marked the reading notes for the Mystery students: I didn't comment much at all, but would simply write something like "This is mostly summary [or your own personal reactions]: do you think that's what you need to prepare for the larger assignments?" I used the term "summation" for a sort of intermediate step--not informal notes but not a formal paper: answers to a series of more in-depth questions about the reading--and of course many of them read that as meaning "summarize." My bad. Maybe in the future I should call those assignments "paper prep" or "focus questions" or something. (Suggestions would be greatly appreciated.) (Really. I mean it. If you have a suggestion, I'd love it.)

I'm very grateful, too, that a student happened to ask a question about the submissions through (the online plagiarism catcher tool)--and that reminded me that I need to set up the assignments in the program so students can submit their papers that way. And I feel idiotically smug that I figured out how to add the revision steps to the main assignments. I remembered asking in the little workshop I took, completely forgot the answer--and have conveniently lost all the handouts and my notes from the workshop. So that I could figure it out without those things gives me a silly sense of triumph--when all it really means is that the site is well-constructed and user-friendly. It will be interesting to see if I make use of the "comments" function (I reckon I'll try it out), and if so, if I am able to figure out how on my own or if I need to contact the lovely librarian who is our point person for all things turnitin. (She truly is lovely, in every way. I love it when she conducts the library class sessions for my students. She does a great job, and they like her.) I actually do have one question for her about putting a limit on late submissions, but it's not crucial. The students have the information in the assignment sheets, and that is the definitive source for parameters, as far as I'm concerned.

Oh, there's probably more, but I am very hungry and very tired. I know I can't leave without noodling just a little more--it seems a crucial part of the detachment process--but I want to get noodled and out of here as soon as I can. Never mind tomorrow is another day; Monday is another week. Whew.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

That's more like it

First, a P.S. from yesterday. After the Mystery class, I was outside the building, starting to walk toward the office, when one of my students suddenly ran up to me, wanting to ask a question. Sure, go ahead. "Is Payne a married name, or have you always been a pain?" She was so delighted with her joke, her sense of humor--and I suspect delighted that she felt she could tease me in that way--that I happily played along. "I've always been a Payne. Born a Payne and I'll die a Payne." She said, "I really wanted to ask that in class, but the right moment never offered itself." It was truly charming, and says nice things about that class's chemistry.

Fiction Writing was more bouncy today. I think they're getting the feel for it--and they're starting to interact directly with each other, which I love. I have to be careful about that, in fact: I interrupted one such interaction today, in advertantly, and I wish I'd let it roll. Ah well. Next time I will. I also notice that because the (student type) desk I sit in has an opening on the left (designed for righties, which I am), I tend to turn my body to the left--so I miss the seeing indications of a desire to speak from the students sitting to my right. I'm fortunate that the students to my left are lovely about pointing out a classmate who wants to say something whom I am overlooking, but that's another reminder to myself. I need to scan the whole circle more frequently. The ones to my right also tend to be the more quiet, less secure students, so they rather fade into the woodwork anyway: all the more reason for me to be sure I turn toward them and include them more often.

The new student was there today, and she was ready to jump in with a comment or two--even though she'd read the story in haste just before class. Of course, the materials have been sitting on my office door since Monday, and even though she asked yesterday where my office is and said she'd pick up the materials then, she didn't. (I'm pretty sure I told her my office location in the e-mail in which I told her the materials would be on the office door, but I could have forgotten, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt on that one.) I'm not sure what that says--other than perhaps that her life has been busier than she expected. Of course, I'm all too ready to see suspicious signs of irresponsibility and lack of motivation in my students, and I have no indication that either are characteristics of this particular student, so I reserve judgment. So far, mixed reviews, but we'll see how things develop.

One young woman, who is a pretty cheerleader type with a refreshing self-confidence and boldness (reminds me a little of Adrianne Palicki, who played Tyra Collette on Friday Night Lights), interrupted the conversation about today's reading pretty early on: she had the floor anyway, so took advantage of the moment to ask if we could go over the assignment for the story due next week. Sure, I said, just help me keep track of the time, because I also want to give you some comments about your notes. I was happy that the conversation wound down just about the time I'd have had to call a halt to it anyway, with about 15 minutes left of the period, and I answered their questions about the story assignment--and told them that my comments on their notes were not intended as scolding but as a way to help them get more out of the assignments. I'll be curious to see if the content of the notes changes as a consequence. And of course I'm very curious to see how the stories turn out.

I was better today at reminding them to look at authorial choices--repeatedly asking about why and how, why and how--so when I talked to them about the notes, I was able to remind them that the main purpose of the notes is to move us out of what we are used to doing (summarizing or interpreting) and into an observation of the craft. I also took Paul's advice, had them write down on their notes the things they want to remember to take away from the story they just read (Barbara Kingsolver's "Rose-Johnny"). I also asked if anyone wanted to volunteer what they had written down--and encouraged the others to add someone else's idea to their own notes: "Oh, yeah, that too." They did--and they did. Nice.

The morning leading up to class was not quite what I'd hoped for, but not bad: there were more students in Advisement than I expected (dammit), so I didn't get a lot of uninterrupted time to work--but I got the attendance stuff sorted out (which had been left in a disorganized mess Monday and yesterday), got the reading notes for today's class marked, and re-read today's story, as well as finishing my re-read of "The Purloined Letter," which we'll be discussing tomorrow in Mystery.

I am a little worried about getting everything ready for tomorrow's classes in the morning--we see what's been happening to my assurances that "tomorrow morning I'll have oodles of time" assumption--but I'm trying to be hopeful and optimistic. As it happens, I have to be here at 9 a.m.--or earlier--in order to do the second attendance run of adjunct classes (Bruce is doing the first). I'll have to another run at 10:30, and there's a department meeting at 11:30. But in-between those things, and during my office hour, Ipray fervently that I'll have time to mark logs and notes for tomorrow's classes. It's very important that they get these first assignments back in a hurry, so they have guidance for the next ones.

But all I can do is all I can do. Tonight, I am completely exhausted (hard to make that shift to the new sleep pattern--and no matter how worn out I am, I'm never good at getting to bed before 11, which I need to do if I'm going to be happy getting up at 6). So tonight, I'm not doing the things I'd planned to do after work: I'm going home to start my interminable wind-down. I need to be alert tomorrow to get all that work done without feeling like my brains have turned to sludge, a condition that affected me relatively severely this afternoon.

At least I know the classes are lively. That's nice to look forward to.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

rough start but a bright finish

The "work" day started with a call from the office saying that Bruce needed me to come in ASAP, something to do with the adjunct strike. I didn't rush--I said I'd be in as soon as I could, and knew that I'd vote in the primary, go to the drugstore, get my iced coffee all before driving to work. But I walked in, Bruce was leaving, and he said, "You have to talk to Allen"--who is the actual assistant chairperson. Long story short(er), as "officials of the college," Allen and I had to go to adjunct classrooms to see if the instructor was there. Each classroom had to be checked twice. Allen would do the first check, within the first 10 minutes of the class period. If the instructor was there, no problem. If not, he had to leave an attendance sheet for the students and tell them to wait until they were dismissed. I'd then do a second check 30 minutes into the period, collect the student attendance sheet, note that the instructor still wasn't there. Then I was supposed to take that paperwork to the administration--by 4:30--and have it notarized. One small problem: all this was to occur in the middle of when I was teaching my two classes.

I tried to be the good Do-Bee and figure out how I could leave my students to work while I walked around campus checking up on adjuncts--but finally I decided I really needed to talk to Bruce. Kathy, the office aide, called him out of a meeting (he was in back-to-back meetings all day) and told him the situation. He said he'd tell the area dean that she had to do my run for me. So, I was off the hook. But I have no idea what the situation will be tomorrow--or following days, if the strike continues. Tonight, members of the administration are checking all the classes: I just ran into the Queen of Assessment here in this building, looking for our classrooms.

I wasn't sure if some students may have been confused about the strike and so stayed home today, but it did seem that a number of students were missing, especially in the 102. I now think that actually many of the missing students withdrew (or were late: a handful came in part way through the period)--as I had three brand new students and one who'd been a no-show last week. I think everyone was there for Mystery and Detective fiction: two brand new students and one no-show from last week.

In the 102, I opted not to do my routine ice-breaker today--perhaps a mistake. I also didn't do the attendance cards that I have students fill out: both of those things take time out of class, but both are worth it. Instead, I talked to them more about their logs, and now that they've tried them out, they have a better sense of what I'm looking for. A couple of students hadn't done the logs, so I cheerfully said, "OK, see you next class" (and wonder if I will); a few were ready to leave because they felt their logs were inadequate, but I said if they had at least tried, that was good enough. Many are opting to re-do the logs on this first story, even though that means they'll have to have two ready on Thursday. I'll give them the chance to do a better job if they want it.

The discussion about the story was good: they got into it in their groups, and the whole class was responsive and thinking well. I keep telling them that I don't want to nail them into one interpretation too quickly: I want them to explore, see what they see instead of working to find what I tell them to find. Same thing happened in Mystery--and one student there even said, "I'm used to being handed a lot more, not given so much to do on my own." She seemed perfectly happy to have to do more on her own, she just was nervous about what to do and how.

The Mystery class is shaping up to be a blast. I did do the ice-breaker with them, and again, the joking and laughing and teasing were in full spate. Once they got into groups, the noise was damned near deafening--which I love. They truly were engaged in the work at hand, too: when I said, "OK, now we're going to talk about 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue,'" I heard several voices say--quite sincerely--"Oh, good!" They got into it, had a grand time. And enough of them know something about Sherlock Holmes to be shocked by how much Doyle ripped off from Poe. We found some hidden clues, some instances of "delay" (when we are told that someone has the information but aren't given that information)... Oh, I could go on, but it was great. They're relaxed, they're happy, they're enjoying the reading, the discussion, each other.

In both classes, they're starting to use each other's names already. Yes! Triumph. Even in the 102, not having done the ice-breaker, I got a few students' names down--and when I used them, the other students started to as well.

Of course, all my paperwork--old handouts, collected assignments, attendance cards--is in wild disarray, but I'm hoping I can sort it out tomorrow. I do know how today's plans worked out, however: remember all that stuff I was so sure I'd get done? Between my getting to work later than I'd intended (not just because of voting and so on but also because I changed my mind about that 6 a.m. alarm--when I was still wide awake at 12:35 a.m.), the fooraw over the attendance thing, and the meeting that I'd completely forgotten I was supposed to attend (I got there more than 30 minutes late), I felt like I didn't know whether I'd be able to remember who I am, never mind make sense of anything else. But I got the Poe story re-read before class, so I didn't have to bullshit my way through that.

I really do have to get up at 6 tomorrow, though, come whatever insomnia or inability to just put the body into bed. I need to get to the office early enough that I can pull together tasks to do at Advisement, as chances are, now that the drop-add period is over (thank god), it will probably be pretty uneventful there.

Again, I know what happens to plans. But I have to live in faith anyway.

Now, I'm going to eat my lunch--and yes, I know it's closer to dinner time, but I'm ravenous and I have to go to physical therapy before I go home: if I don't eat before I leave, by the time I get home I'll be so empty I'll feel sick. So, lunch now--and sure, maybe dinner in about 3 hours, when I finally get home.

I feel like I'm trying to beat a throw from short infield as I run for home. I'm going to be sliding into base on my belly--but then I'll be home (and yeah, I'll be safe. No umpire to declare otherwise.) But this was a good day, all in all, and I'm delighted that these two classes are how I'm going to be ending my weeks.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Not a lead balloon, but not helium filled, either

I'm on the fence about today's session of the Fiction Writing class. It wasn't bad, but toward the end, the students were starting to tune out: they'd had enough. So there was definitely a leaden atmosphere--and as a class, a collection of young people, they haven't caught fire, no reactive chemistry going on. Next time they seem to be fading out, however, I'll let them go instead of trying to come up with something productive to do; they'd actually done fine work, and most of them had good contributions to make. A few are very skilled at analysis, so my job was to allow the analysis but then bring the conversation back to authorial choices, methods, techniques. I'll be very interested to read their notes: some are doing way more than is needed, some not as much as I'd like--but the main thing is, what are they noticing?

One of the things I liked is that they're starting to use each other's names: "It's like Soandso said," instead of "It's like she said." Good. It will get even better when they get used to talking to each other instead of always through me--but that will take some time.

We'll see how it goes through the first workshop week. After that, I'll check in with them, see how they feel about the process, if they think there's something else that we could do or add, or a different approach, that might be more helpful to them--or if they're OK with what we're doing.

The other thing I liked fell into my head right at the end of class: I asked them, "OK, what will you take away from this story that could be useful to you in your own writing?" It seems so obvious to ask, but it honestly hadn't occurred to me until that moment. A few volunteered good ideas; the others, I'm sure, are going to think about the question. Of course, I mentioned that to Paul, and he riffed on the pedagogy of starting every class (any class) with a review of what has been covered so far, then ending with a review of what was covered in that day's session. "Have them write it down," he said. I see the value to that--and I'll suggest to them that they add it to their notes. I don't need to see what they decide to keep, but it's helpful for them to remember that there will always be something to learn from the models I've provided--and to have it written down.

There is one student I worry about. Well, no, I take that back. I don't worry about him. I'm virtually certain he's not going to make it. He couldn't understand the story (which is not at all difficult--Le Guin's "Malheur County") and his notes consisted of about 15 words total. I asked him about his difficulty with the reading, and he said, "Honestly?" Yes. He confessed that he doesn't like to read and has a short attention span. Clearly he hasn't developed any tools to overcome those problems, so I suggested he meet with me. I told him I can give him some ideas how to bring his attention back to the reading, and I can, but I'm pretty sure it's a lost cause. If he hasn't learned how to keep his attention on reading by now, I don't think he's going to--because I don't think he really believes that he needs to, that it's important. OK, Son, if you feel that way--and good luck with that if you want a real job in the real world.

The time in Advisement today was fine. There was just enough of a steady stream of students that I wasn't tapping my toes, wondering if the next five minutes would ever pass, but it wasn't frantic. Most of the students were there because, having been to a class once, they've decided either they don't like the days and times or they don't like the professor--or the class is more demanding than they think they can handle. Over and over I said, "Well, a lot of it depends on where you can find a seat: most classes are closed at this point." The worst was the one student who came in and hadn't registered for anything because he wanted to see an adviser before he registered. I didn't say, "And where have you been since January? Because we've been here...." I just showed him what he still needed to graduate and told him good luck.

I only got impatient with one student who was very difficult to hear and understand (soft voice, slight speech impediment, foreign accent: triple threat)--and who also didn't seem to know how to prioritize. What's most important, to find classes that financial aid will cover--since now the only courses that apply to the program you're in are the liberal arts courses you don't want to take--or to find classes that fit the program you want to transfer into, but that financial aid won't cover, because they're not part of the program you are currently in? The answer to that seemed to be "yes." Yes what? "Both options." (She didn't say that: I'm providing the subtext.) I'd offer her suggestions for option A; she'd reject those so I'd offer suggestions for option B: no, she didn't want that either. Darlin', there is no option C. I finally sent her off to figure it out for herself. I think she's going with option A, even though she doesn't like it. That's OK: it will do her good, rather like a dose of castor oil. (It ain't just a remedy for constipation: it's good for almost anything that ails you. Like a liberal arts education. Which has no effect on constipation, except constipation of the mind, perhaps. But I digress.)

Most of the students, however, were very understanding of their limited options--and willing to go off and look for what they could find on Banner while they can still add courses (that period ends tomorrow at midnight). I'd suggest they haunt Banner, looking for seats to open up--and in fact, one of my own students just benefited from that. A young woman wrote to me last week (I think) to ask if she could get into Fiction Writing, which was, at that point, full. Today, I found out that one student dropped--so I e-mailed the interested student to let her know that a seat was available, if she wanted to jump on it. She did. Now it's just a matter of her getting the materials and getting caught up with the rest of us. The main thing is that she really wanted to take the class, and I think she's thrilled that I alerted her to the possibility. Happy to do it, for a motivated student.

I'm about to pack it in for tonight. There seems to be a problem with my connection to our printer (fuck), so I'll see if I can get that sorted out without too much trauma. If it gets too hairy, I'll contact our computer wizard and ask her to fix it tomorrow (if possible). Tomorrow's P&B meeting has been canceled--because there is an emergency meeting of the department chairs that Bruce has to attend--so I should have oodles of time to come in and get prepped for classes as well as do, well, who knows what else.

Oh, yeah: and the adjunct union is out on strike. It's illegal for them to strike (Taylor Law forbids public employees from striking), but they're doing it anyway. They did it before, when their last contract wasn't approved (back in 2007, I think it was). Last time, those of us in the union for full-time faculty went through a lot of bruhaha about whether to honor the picket lines (doing so can get us in trouble with the Taylor Law) or whether to go on about our business. Much as I want to show solidarity with them--we're all on the same side in this cultural war--I'm going to go about teaching my classes like always. I do worry about the students in classes taught by adjuncts, though. And not terribly surprisingly, we've been informed by the administration that we are not to discuss the strike with students, parents, the community, or the media. (Freedom of speech has apparently been suspended for the duration.) If the students ask me, I'll tell them what I know, which is damned little. But more to my own selfish interests, this may be a sign of what our union is up against. The adjunct faculty has been without a contract for three years, and now they're on strike. Is this sort of like the way the Golden Globes suggest possible outcomes for the Oscars? Not that anyone is getting a golden statuette--or any reason to give a "thank you" speech. Politics. Christ I hate it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Met 'em all

OK, so now I've met all my classes--though not all my students: a few AWOL from each class yesterday and there have already been some drops and consequently new adds. (I don't feel more than a teeny  bit guilty about my sense of jubilation and vindication when I was right about one student in the 102: I knew she wouldn't make it--and she's already gone. Good. Zei gezunt. (I figure a little Yiddish may be appropriate on the eve of Rosh Hashanah)).

But every one of my 13 Fiction Writing students was there today. I can't quite get a read on them yet--but part of that is my fault: I wasn't as jokey and exuberant today as I was yesterday, for whatever reason (let's blame it on Advisement).

I didn't want to just give them the syllabus and first assignments and send them home; I wanted to start breaking the ice right away--and didn't want to do the usual ice-breaker (which I'm getting a little tired of, but it works, so I'll probably keep on doing it anyway: sigh). Before I even started, I told them to put the desks in a circle, and told them that that's how we'll work the class every day. Therefore, as soon as they come in, they might as well put the desks in a circle. I also told them that at the end of every class, we'll put the desks back in rows; I had to remind them, but we did. It's silly stuff, but it gives a kind of ritual to the class: we start with a circle, then we take the circle apart (it's our circle, only ours: no one else gets to have it). But in between, well, what to do? So, in my usual improvisational tap-dance, I had each think of a story to tell--could be real, could be made up--and then the rest of us were supposed to find a way to imaginatively connect that person's face with the name and the story. (I sucked at that, by the way; I'll have to remind myself a number of times--but we'll all be using each other's names, I hope, by the end.) What I found interesting is that they all were willing to tell something about themselves--"I like to help people," "I like science fiction," whatever--but most did not offer an actual story. I had to prompt and cajole and ask--and in at least one instance, I still didn't get a story.

I also found it interesting that at the end, one of the students asked for the story of how I got to teach this class--as I told them that I'd never taught it before--but when I told the story, the young woman who asked was clearly bored witless. I grant you, it's not a very scintillating story. I mean, how "edge of your seat" is it to listen to what happens in scheduling committee? I suppose I could have tried to be more dramatic about it, but may I refer you back to "I wasn't as jokey and exuberant," above.

I apologize--well, not really--but after class I had a lovely conversation with one student. Since she has a food blog (and forgive me for forgetting the name of it: please feel free to enter the name and a link in the comments section, if you're reading this), I mentioned that I keep this blog. I told her I'd no doubt mention her in the blog. I'm amused by how circular these references are, an Ouroboros eating its own tail. But I bring it up because it was the kind of student interaction I particularly enjoy. She has taken other creative writing classes (from the adjunct from whom I stole this one), and she's truly inspired to write. There are at least two other real writers in the group: one who is a Def poet, one who has taken five workshops prior to this one (I think he said) and hopes at last to finish something. (Perhaps I need to say that nothing is every really finished; we just eventually stop working on it.) Those two young men will, I hope, bring enthusiasm to the class, but this woman may also bring a level of genuine dedication. She is older than the rest of the students, coming back to school to continue her education, so she has discipline as well as the fire in the belly.

I was a little worried, on the other hand, by the student who asked if, in choosing the story option in which they get to make up their own character (instead of raiding one from the stories we'll read), she could choose a biblical character. Um, no, I said: if you're using a character from something else, I'd prefer you stick with these stories. However, you can set your story in biblical times, if you like. I'm thinking of the story told me about a student who, when asked for his thoughts about a reading, said his thoughts were with Jesus. I do believe in the value of religion, but not when it prevents a person from thinking about, or experiencing, anything outside that frame. Please, may the young woman in my class simply be fascinated with the stories in the bible and want to imagine further into those lives. I have no evidence that is not the case, so I choose to believe, for now, that she is not a fundamentalist fanatic of some kind. Of any kind.

I'll be very curious to hear what they come up with out of the first reading, come Monday, and to see their reading notes. They all seemed OK with the basic structure: read, write, workshop, revise, repeat. We'll see how it flies. One student was worried about having to read twelve classmate's stories in a week, but I said they're to be 4-6 pages; if anyone writes more than that, we're under no obligation to read past the fourth page. That calmed him down. It's all just a huge experiment right now. We'll all see how it comes together--or doesn't--as we go along.

But that's sort of true with all my classes. I grant you, the classes I teach regularly have a pretty clear structure that I know does work--but even then, there are always significant variations, both because the students are always different and because I'm perpetually tinkering (or doing wholesale gut renovations) to make things work better. With two courses I've never taught before, however, this semester is perpetual practice in "well, we'll see."

Fine by me.

I should read this over, comb through to see if there's anything I missed, find the more felicitous phrase, whatever, but I need to get some groceries, then meet Paul for our first dinner of the semester (no steak and scotch blowout this time, just an ordinary meal). It seems strange that I'm already grateful for a long weekend, but I have a lot of life maintenance to tend to, and it will feel good to get that stuff cleared up before the semester really gets rolling.

So, for those of you for whom it is appropriate, Happy New Year. For the rest, I'll "see" you again Monday--unless something interesting pops before then.