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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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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The spites of life

Well, I managed to get everything done despite being thrown a significant curve-ball by my personal life: the 10:30 a.m. doctor's appointment lasted until 1:00 p.m.--mostly spent waiting. I'd have just rescheduled and left, but this was a specialist whose next appointment wouldn't be for three months. I'm glad I waited--the medical care was excellent (the joys of living in a major metropolitan area!)--but it did mean that I've felt somewhat rushed and flurried since getting to campus.

Nature in Lit was still more than a bit of a lead balloon; I know it's the material, which is difficult, but they're also not really trying, many of them. I modeled working through a difficult passage, asking questions about how one thing might relate to another--and told them that that kind of work can go into their logs and is extremely valuable, even if they don't feel as if they get to something solid. Two young men were conspicuously absent--one of them was Bambi in Headlights the first two classes anyway, so I suspect they may just be gone. One young woman looks like she's going to be a delight. I'm having to do a certain amount of squelching the students from Mystery & Detective--and the best of the bunch, the Serious Student, is going to be away all next week. She's getting the trip of a lifetime from her father, and I'm thrilled to bits for her, but I will feel her absence. One young man is tending to monopolize the conversation just with what he knows about science and the world; I want to encourage him to be engaged, but I also am going to have to sit him down and talk to him about focusing more on the texts. He's severely dyslexic--he's told me--so I understand why he shies away from it, but he is making good sense out of it so far; he just is more interested in showing what he knows than in learning what's new. But he's somewhat balanced by the Serious Student--and another young woman who seems extremely bright, and who is starting to engage: I think she felt a bit shy at first, but she's opening up. Nice.

A lovely moment after class: one very sweet, shy student from one of last semester's 102 classes was waiting outside Nature in Lit today--and she wants to join the class. The official drop-add period is over, but there's a new procedure whereby if I grant her permission--and if Bruce also does--she can still add the class. I'd love to have her join us, and she said, "I knew I wanted to take this class; I don't know why I didn't sign up for it in the first place." I hope it works out: I'd love it for her sake and for the sake of the class.

The 102 was pretty good--even though there were yet another few students who'd never been there before. I haven't run the "name game" in either class yet, as I haven't felt any individual class meeting contained enough of a solid core to make it worth while. Next week I'll do it anyway: I hate not knowing their names at this point.

Shifting gears to the P&B sprockets: I spoke with the colleague I'm mentoring for his tenure application--the one whose neck I've wanted to wring for weeks now. I thought I might have to come in tomorrow briefly to look at his folder one last time, but I managed to do that after class--thank God. I'm not sure what I may have missed, but there's only so much I can do. If he doesn't get tenure because of a technicality, it would be horrible: he's brilliant in so many ways, but even in this "last" pass through, I found things that weren't properly organized or didn't quite match up. Christ almighty, what does it take? It's factory work: put the widgets in the right slots.

And there's assessment stuff building, and I have a cover letter to write, and and and, as always. But I'm tired and I'm hungry and I don't want to stay here until I'm too hungry and cranky. So, off I go.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Professorial Persona

I was thinking again today, in the 102 class, about how my professorial persona has changed over the years, and most radically in the past year. Even though something about me apparently still reads as ferocious, apparently I'm becoming a slightly  more approachable dragon. I certainly have been getting a number of e-mails from students, which delights me--even when the questions they ask require a deep inhale through pinched nostrils while I gather my patience and compassion.

There were two young men in the 102 who had not been there before: one has been on my roster since the first day; the other registered late but was on my roster by Monday, yet was a no-show. They both showed some signs that they intend to take things seriously, want to understand--but I told them very clearly that I'm already significantly concerned about how far behind they are. Just that fact alone is enough to make me willing to wager that they won't make it through the semester. It's unbelievably rare for anyone to miss the first two assignments and still come through successfully. There is another student in the same class who is in the same position: he registered about ten minutes before Monday's class, arrived late, and told me with trepidation that he would also have to be absent today. He may have a slightly better shot, as he was already talking about making sure he'd get all the work for me on Monday--but I've been fooled so many times by students who seem to be completely on the ball and who, in fact, are not even in the ball court.

But I mention them in part as evidence of how my persona has changed. In the past, the two young men who arrived today would have gotten a very stern, grim-faced professor issuing the warning. This time, they got someone who was concerned, supportive, smiling, understanding.... It probably won't make a damned bit of difference to their success, but I certainly like myself better when I present a more relaxed persona.

Of course, it is a persona. That professor is not false in any way: she's me; I'm her. But we pick and choose which parts of ourselves we reveal and which we conceal, and when, and why. The snake-haired witch will make her appearance if need be, but I don't feel any longer as if I need to lead with that look.

The class was a bit chaotic but juicy. I kept interrupting their good conversation to clarify a point about the logs--and (as usual) I gave them the option of re-doing their logs to improve on them. And I haven't booted anyone yet for not being prepared, though there was one young man I should have tossed: he's been there since class 1, and yet was not prepared (though he was last time). I overheard him--and several other students--confessing that they hadn't looked carefully enough at the schedule of assignments. I'm on the fence about whether to remind them to look or whether to let them figure it out on their own: "Oh, shit! I keep missing assignments. I guess I need to look at that schedule more carefully and more frequently." I'm tending toward the latter.

Paul and I had a lovely discussion about critical thinking, about understanding ourselves exactly what we're doing with various assignments, and he pointed out to me a problem with the set-up of the logs: they can't start with evidence. They need to have a sense of the story as a whole--and then go back and figure out how they got there. I do make a big point about "read the whole story first," but I still haven't backed up far enough, or emphasized the real breakdown of steps. I need to rework that yet again (the search for the magic explanation or assignment that suddenly brings enlightenment to all). But when I backed up and re-explained to the students today, they seemed to get it better. And I had another moment, similar to one in yesterday's 102, in which I could say, "That, right there: that's what goes in logs."

My efforts to convey the value and process of the logs is dovetailing in interesting ways with last semester's Assessment Committee work on assessing "critical thinking." In doing my own response to the assessment, I realized I don't break it down clearly enough for myself, never mind for the students. I'm now envisioning a combination presentation/workshop on somehow clarifying what part of critical thinking we are addressing in a given assignment. The assignment itself may not change a whit, but I'm betting if we foreground exactly what's going on with it--here's how revision requires "critical thinking" for instance--the way we approach the assignment might work better. Foreground it for the students, not just for ourselves.

This is what I love: the perpetual process of understanding better what I want students to learn, and why, and how I think they can best learn it.

So, I gave the "work through frustration" and "college will change you" speeches in class today--and as usual, some of the students looked at me as if I'd just sprouted broccoli from my head while others nodded in agreement. I ended with a sentence I sometimes use and sometimes don't, about the need to approach college with a certain attitude of humility. I always say, "If you're not willing to change, if you think you know what you need and you're good just like you are, now isn't the time for you to be in college." But this time I added, "So being in college requires that you approach it with a certain humility. You need to say, 'I want to be changed; please change me.'" One young man, who is in the running to be a favorite student already, showed me the last line of his self evaluation after class, saying, "After what you just said, you're going to love this." He's right: I do. His last sentences are "Unlike when I was 18 and I knew everything, so you couldn't tell me anything, I am 31 now, and I know nothing so I want to know everything." Yep, that's the attitude.

In fact, he's one of at least two young men in that class who have been away from college for a while--and frequently those are the absolute best students. Sometimes, if the gap has been too long, that sets up another whole set of problems, but these guys have been away but are still young enough to be malleable, flexible. Not that that's always a function of age: the possession or lack of those qualities is individual, and some can maintain flexibility life long while others solidify early. But I'm liking the two of them in class so far. A few other students stand out for various reasons--a few because they are particularly bright, a few because they notably are not--but those two stand fair to be featured in many a future post.

I also indulged two pleasures today. Time that I probably should have devoted to reading the selection we'll go over in 281 (Nature in Lit) tomorrow--that or marking more 102 logs--I instead spent on reading a pretty nifty article about Le Guin's works. The author is looking specifically at how religion or religiosity, reason and Reason, are presented in her writings--and he's got some very useful ideas. I found it last semester, looking for any critical pieces other than my own that address the novella "Paradises Lost," and he does (albeit briefly, at least so far), but there's so much going on in the article that I find interesting, I'm having a blast reading it. The other pleasure was just sitting in the hall talking with a colleague about what we're enjoying reading. She's also interested in SF/Fantasy, so we share some common ground--but we also have areas of interest that are completely separate. I could develop a hell of a reading list just from our 15-20 minute chat. Talking to Paul as I did is also a pleasure in which I indulged--but I indulge in that one regularly. The other two are more rare--and I'm reminded how much I enjoy both.

At this juncture, however, I'm going to take a calculated risk and leave the office without having done any further work. I do need to finish reviewing the reading for tomorrow's 281, and I do need to finish marking those logs--and I have a morning doctor's appointment that will almost certainly make me late for tomorrow's meeting (thank god for a very accommodating alternate, who will cover as much of the meeting as I miss, which may realistically be the entire thing). So the only chunk of time I'll have to finish up prior to tomorrow's classes will be the time that will become my office hour, once office hours are officially being held. But I think I can do it--and probably still have time to eat lunch. I know full well that I haven't got the brain right now to accomplish anything anyway, so I won't pretend. I'll simply fling this post up on the blog and begin the evening packing of tents prior to stealing away.

We'll see what the morrow brings. I hope for good things.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

102: yes. 281: not so much

I suppose it isn't a big surprise that the Nature in Lit class didn't fly so well today. Many of the students were baffled by the reading (William Bradford in particular) and several were very late. They're also not dialed into the whole log/ideas/talk thing yet. I did a lot more talking than I might usually do, but until they've got something they can grab on to, this is going to be more than a bit of an uphill push.

After class, one of the senior observers asked me what the readings had to do with nature. Sigh. I'd talked--twice--about how they reveal something regarding how the early European settlers viewed nature as having value only insofar as it served a purpose for them: their views were anything but the rhapsodic enjoyment and appreciation we assume is "correct." She was questioning the value of the logs--but since she isn't doing them, I'm not sure why she wanted to know what they're for or how they work. Even just as a theoretical question, the students are struggling a bit now, and they're actually doing the logs (in theory at least). Purely as an abstraction, it's hard to convey what they do and how.

Ah well. I proceed in happy anticipation that the readings will rapidly become more "user friendly," if you will, and that the increasing accessibility of the readings will help encourage student participation.

The 102 seemed awfully lumpy and dull at first, but as soon as I got them working on the plagiarism thing in groups, they perked up considerably--and we ended up having a pretty good discussion. (And yes, I gave them the "College will change you/work through frustration" bits, albeit in significantly condensed version.) I've already got a problem student: meaning no disrespect at all, he will be referred to as the Guinea Pig, as he needs to be "suppressed" (actually repressed, but in Alice in Wonderland, it's "suppress," so there you have it). He was going off on wild speculations, trying to turn a relatively simple "coming of age" story into a murder mystery. It was great, actually, as he gave me the perfect opportunity to talk again about how theories have to make sense in considering the work as a whole. And the other students were amused, not annoyed, so all to the good.

I am disappointed all the way around with the paucity of logs I've received so far. I did give all my classes the dread warning: this class was their one "freebie," but after this, show up unprepared and you'll have to leave... I'm anticipating further problems with the log business, but I'll handle whatever comes up whenever it comes up.

I'm pretty tired and cranky, but I also want to give a tango class a try, so I'm going to fly out of here. maybe I'll have more/better to report tomorrow.

Monday, January 27, 2014

It flew

After much thought about various approaches to today's class, I finally opted for a plan that actually worked surprisingly well. I put all the students who were up to speed on one side of the room, and all those who needed to start from zero on the other--and then we started with an exercise we could all do together, even the students who missed the first class and were unprepared to discuss the reading: I went over factors that can lead to a charge of plagiarism, even when the student intends to be honest (leaving out quotation marks, paraphrasing too close to the original, that sort of thing)--and then had them evaluate several samples of student writing to determine whether they were plagiarized or not. They asked some very good questions, too, as well as getting fully engaged in the task. I then put the prepared students into groups to discuss the reading while I went over the first day handouts with the newbies. I told the newbies they'd pretty much have to just sit quietly and listen this time out, but that they should get an idea of what the process looks like from hearing their classmates discuss the reading.

And the prepared students did a great job. They were very smart about their responses, immediately got the idea that we need to find evidence to support any assertions we make--got their first "cocktail party" words (penultimate, tangible, and intangible). I told them I was very happy with the work they'd done, and it's true. If classes continue like this, they're going to do fine. I know it's early days, and classes do have a tendency to shift and change in affect over time, but we're at least off to a good start, which makes me happy.

Some of them are still unduly confused about the fact that they have a schedule of assignments to follow--but after enough iterations of my responding to their questions about due dates with "what does it say in your schedule of assignments?" they'll eventually get it. This is also the first semester in which students have been confused about picking up the class reader. Perhaps they simply can't wrap their heads around the fact that 1) they need to actually pick it up (I won't bring it to them) and/or 2) that it's free: they just have to go get it.

My only quarrels with how I conducted the class are 1) I'm not happy about I still forgot to give the "college will change you/work through frustration" speeches--and 2) I forgot to tell them about some errors on the syllabus (incorrect office hours, for one thing). Ah well.

Of course, my experience tomorrow will be entirely different, even though I'll try to do essentially the same thing. There is no way to duplicate what happened, and there's no way to anticipate whether I'll feel, "Wow, that sucked" or "Wow, that was even better." Or even just, "Well, that was different."

Advisement was busy as hell: today is the last day of drop/add, so a lot of students were frantically trying to swap out classes, or fill in a schedule that had been dropped because of lack of payment. My favorite was the guy who turned up and said he hadn't known he was supposed to do anything to register because he hadn't bothered to check his college e-mail account: it's his first semester, and I guess he thought we'd send him a nice little text message to his phone telling him where to report and what he was taking. He wasn't belligerent or testy, but he was clearly not willing to take the time to listen carefully or read anything. I pretty much handed him a bunch of pieces of paper, patted him on the head, and said, "You're on your own, Buddy. Have fun." I must say, however, that he rather epitomizes an inauspicious start to the semester.

On the level of committee work, I am about ready to tear the head off the colleague whose tenure application I am mentoring. He finally brought it in at the end of last week--and it's still a mess, and missing absolutely crucial pieces of information. Bruce about hit the ceiling when I told him about it--but it's not just a scare tactic to tell the guy that if he doesn't pull it together, he won't get tenure. The thing has to be done, completed, beautiful and submitted next Monday. Jesus, what a space cadet. He's a brilliant guy and an amazing teacher, but he is clearly one of those people who lives his life oblivious to bureaucratic bullshit. A delightful way to live in some ways, I grant, buy in this kind of instance, seriously problematic.

I also have joined--or semi-joined--the Creative Writing Committee. Not that I need another committee (dear god) but I have made myself a member of the creative writing faculty, having taught Fiction last semester and having selected it for myself again for the fall. And there was some harrumphing about how creative writing faculty are not getting the creative writing classes--which I think I bitched about a little at the end of last semester. (The ones who have not gotten a creative writing class have not put said class as their first choice--and they've gotten their first choice of class. So, bite me.) But I also do have a teeny tiny guilty conscience about not being a "writer" writer and teaching the class, and I figured this would be a way to solidify my bona fides, as it were. And there actually are two potential projects that I'm very interested in: the creation of a Creative Nonfiction course--which I've wanted for donkey's years--and the question of what to do with the Creative Writing Project's "library" or "office"--or, at the moment, sort of scruffy space. That thwanged right into the heart of a dream of mine, to have a space in which students and faculty can simply hang out and talk about ideas, writing, reading--and in the case of creative writing students, publishing, careers.... I'm referring to them as "salons," and others are very enthusiastic about them--including a student who turned up for the committee meeting, thinking somehow it was a club meeting. (Imagine her surprise to be surrounded by faculty--but what a cool experience for her, as we made her entirely welcome, and she got to hear us do what we do behind the scenes.) We'll see if the salon idea takes off. If it does, I'd love to expand it beyond just creative writing students--and beyond just English department faculty. These dreams and visions, these ambitions: if only I had the energy and focus to match.

I'm going to take off in just a minute here. The desk is covered in chaos, but I'm not even going to try to organize. I gave myself an extra hour of sleep this morning to make up at least a little for a sleepless bout in the wee hours--and it paid off in terms of my ability to think (which is still compromised these days), but it did not help in terms of my feeling organized and on top of things. I got through today's class fine, but there's a lot I want to nail down before tomorrow's two. So, early to bed and all that.

And the Scarlett O'Hara mantra, as always.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

The usual mixed bag

Well, I've met all three classes, though not all the students. I believe everyone was there for Nature in Lit--including six (count 'em, six) former students, four from Mystery and Detective, two from Fiction Writing. The class was thus a bit of a madhouse, of course, but things will settle down--if for no other reason than that Judy Blue Eyes is only going to be auditing until March, at which point she has to take a full-time job. She'll come when she can, just to hang out with us, but when she's not there, Ms Enthusiasm will be a little less Tiggerish. I hope. A few of the students looked alert, interested, even dare I say excited to see how the class was starting out: the usual first class discussion about what is "nature" and what is not led into very cool territory already: I like the way they're thinking, and they're perking up their ears that we're already getting into actual thought, ideas, musings. One poor student looked like Bambi in headlights: he was freaked out just to try to come up with something that counts as "nature," even when I told them they could be as simplistic as they liked. One student was struggling not to fall asleep--but he doesn't seem like a bad sort, just not as caught up in the discussion as I'd hope. The rest: we'll see. As always.

I wasn't surprised that the usual gang didn't want to leave the room, were happy to hang out and talk about whatever (nothing having specifically to do with the class). I realize I'm going to have to be vigilant about my own time and remember that I have a class after that one meets. I was already to head back to my office (the donkey in the rut worn by last semester's pattern--we're even in the same classroom as the Mystery class was) when I suddenly thought, "Oh! I have to go teach some more."

That 102 had the advantage of more bodies in the room--not quite as vacant feeling as yesterday's 102--but the students seemed about the same: some enjoying the humor, seeming fine with what I explained, a few very visibly reluctant if not outright resistant, a few falling asleep--or simply sitting there with the lights off. One student reminds me already of a student from last semester: charming as all get out, willing to talk and be the life of the party but worrying about the work and asking the same question over and over (about the class reader--which is not such a difficult concept to grasp: there's a photocopied reader. It's in a box outside my office door. Pick one up. Put it in a ring binder. But something about all that was way more than he could take in). I also can tell already that I'm going to spend a lot of time in the first weeks reminding them that their assignments are in the schedule within the syllabus. What's due? Look in the schedule. Will we write papers? Look in the schedule (and duh).

Since most of them were in class, I'm opting not to send the e-mail to the absentees that I sent to yesterday's class, letting them know there is already work due. They'll catch up--or not.

One thing I'm a little concerned about in terms of my own first day approach is that I didn't do the "college will change you" and "work through frustration" speeches--I didn't even think of it until just now (weird: I wonder what that block is about?)--but I did tell them that they don't have to be in my section of 102 if the work seems like more than they want to take on. I tried to be nice about it, not to deliberately scare anyone away, but the more I think about it, the more I think it's a bad idea for me and my teaching methods. I think it sets up an expectation of unhappiness with the class, which is not the tone I want to set for the beginning of the semester. I know Paul says something along those lines, and it probably flies for him, but I just don't think it's right for me. And I do want to do the usual set pieces, as I think they do work very well with my persona and philosophy. So, I'll find time next week--dammit, I'll make time next week--to give the talk. I did tell the Nature in Lit students that I think college is really about just thinking about stuff in new and deeper ways, and I did tell the 102 students that they'll be working on critical thinking, which is valuable in life, never mind academics, but those other two ideas--about change and frustration--are key.

So how do I feel about this first week? I'd give myself a B. But it's early days yet, and I have time to improve. Oh, speaking of which: I gave the students in all the classes a little handout--complete with arrows--showing how gathering evidence leads to theories about possible arguments, and the theories lead eventually to an argument, which is what a paper is about--and the students from Mystery gave me a raft of shit about how useful that would have been to them last semester. "Why didn't you give this to us??" Well, because I hadn't come up with it yet. I learn too, you know. "Do you know how useful this would have been?" Yes, which is why I came up with it; I listened to what you said and thought this would be useful. "So you listened to us at the end? But that was too late to help us then!" True, but it can help you now....

And the main thing I take from that exchange is that the handout may actually do what I want it to do. We'll see. I'll get first logs next week, and that will reveal a lot about how much my little lecture about the process--and the attendant handout--accomplished.

I may do a little more work tonight, but I'm tired and I've not felt entirely healthy for weeks, so I also may opt to simply bail and head for home. It feels odd that it's Thursday--the first week is always weird, as it starts on what should be the second day--but I admit I'm glad as hell that it is.

Now, everyone, join in the chorus: "Back in the saddle again...." http://youtu.be/BZqRL7nJB48

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

First day of classes--not

I'm glad to have come in today, just to do a little more organizing, but as I see the snowfall increasing exponentially outside, I realize I shouldn't noodle around in the office any longer. Classes are canceled starting with my first period of the day, which is not a problem: the first week, I meet T/Th classes twice and M/W classes only once, so the Tuesday is usually a little bit of wheel spinning, so that by the second week, everything is in synch. I was worried that I wouldn't meet my M/W class until next week--but we've gotten notice that classes will resume right on time for me to meet those students. Whew.

There were many times over the break when I thought "I'd really like to post something about this," but, well, whenever I was done with the work of the day, I decided I'd rather enjoy the break. Maybe tomorrow I'll spend some time getting caught up on various thoughts and occurrences from the past weeks--or maybe not. In any event, I'm comfortable being back to the routine of classes and committees, even if we are starting off with a snow day.