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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Well, we'll see

As far as I can tell, I'm pretty much set to start the fall semester. I'll have to sort through all the stuff that I'll get back from the printing center, put it in the right folders in the right order--and of course I found two mistakes on the 101 syllabus (oops), which I'll correct by hand. (One doesn't really matter so much--I have the wrong date next to a day of the week--but the other is a missing page number for an assigned reading, and it's kind of hard for the students to know how far to read if the significant numeral is a mystery.)

And of course, because I truly am the absent-minded professor, I realized I had created two different versions of a handout for the fiction writing class--and once I looked them over, I realized I really wanted a sort of Vulcan mind-meld of the two. So I created yet another version that had all the bits I wanted from the first two; fortunately, there are only 13 students in that class, so I only needed to make 13 copies: no big deal for me to stand next to the copier that long nor for the department to pay for the toner.


Right at the moment, I'm mostly hoping that I have the most correct, up-to-date versions of all the handouts both on my thumb drive (so I can transfer them to the computer at home) and on my faculty home page (so students can find them if necessary). Well, if not, I suppose the world won't come to a screeching halt (though one never knows).

I also ran into one of my colleagues from the "seminar hours" ad hoc committee, which was a reminder that I really do have to think through and write down some suggestion about that before we meet--and we're meeting right away when the semester starts. I'll have time somewhere between now and then, but I do want to work my way through my thinking in writing, so I'm sure the ideas are clear, make sense, are possible to implement without too much faculty resistance while still satisfying administrative desires. Bleagh.

On a much more pleasant note, there has been a small flurry of e-mails with my colleagues from psych and bio, the ones I threw together a panel idea with. I don't recall if I noted here, but the panel very nearly got lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, my colleague from psych raised a question about the fact that we'd not heard anything; another colleague is the president of the regional chapter of the organization, and she checked with the conference organizers; they loved our idea--and scrambled around to find a time for us. So, we've been accepted--and now my colleagues are starting to think about what they'll want to say and how to say it when we actually present. I have some ideas, but again, I need to start working them through in writing. Not just yet, however: the conference isn't until November, and I know if I try to do it now, not only will I lack the needed sense of panic to get my ass in gear, by November I'll have forgotten what I wrote or where I put it. But it is fun to at least know we're really going to do it--and to mull over ideas, even in a rather vague and formless way.

Speaking of vague and formless: that's what I intend to be for the next few weeks, until I have to come in to help Bruce with the last-minute panic. I saw him briefly today, and he's in his usual state of frustration about the ever-moving target that is scheduling adjuncts. We haven't even gotten to the point where we have to look at class counts and see what's in danger of being canceled: that's when I'll get to join the fun. I told him to call me if he needs help, but he's terrible about it, so I told the secretaries to keep an eye on him and to call me if he doesn't. He's like me, though: at this point, so much of it is in his own head, it would be harder to explain enough so I could help him than just to deal with it himself. Right now, I'm slated to come in and work with him on August 20 and 21; then I'll be on campus from the 26th through the end of that week--and then classes start.

I write that out and begin to feel like I should start hyperventilating right now, but in fact, I've got a few weeks to work on that sea-cucumber impression I like so much, simply rolling about with the tide. Ahhh. So, unless something highly unusual happens, here endeth the summer-time posts from Prof. TLP.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Chip, chip, chip

I'm in the office, got in sometime in the early afternoon, and I've been sorting through handouts, trying to figure out what I have ready, what I need ready, and by when. I'd already sent a bunch of stuff off to the printing office, orders that I didn't want to tax our departmental machines with--nor did I want to stand there watching copies get made (a definitive definition of tedium). I also hope that sending things off to the printing office may be easier on our departmental budget than using up the toner in our machines, though perhaps not. In any event, in addition to all the things I already had copied, I now have a good-sized packet of further copies to be made, which of course also means that I'm trusting the printing office to have them completed by the time I need them.

I also spent a fair amount of time reworking some handouts--yet again, part of that apparently endless process. I truly do not understand some of my colleagues who have been using the exact same handouts for decades (seriously: I've seen some of them and they clearly originated on old manual typewriters). Part of why I'm taking a break from 102 is that it's gotten stale for me--including the handouts I've not felt the need to rework for some time. When I return to 102, I may not do the kind of systemic overhaul I'm doing for 101, but I may well reconsider some of those handouts: both whether they accomplish what I intend and whether they could be made more clear for students.

That's the other part of the endless revision of handouts process: trying to strike that balance between covering all the bases and overwhelming with too much information. I still lean quite heavily in the "overwhelming" direction, I know, but I hate it when students find new and unique ways to misconstrue my clear (to me) instructions.

Speaking of overwhelming, however: in the batches of stuff I sent off to be copied back in May or June are examples from my own reading of what an annotated text looks like (all my little stars and comments and what-have-yous) and what it looks like when I took those annotations and did some further thinking about them: what I'm calling "expanded notes" for my students. And now that I look at that material--even the cover sheet I wrote--and I worry that it will just scare the bejesus out of the students. The cover sheet is my attempt to reassure students: "you don't have to be this extensive; you don't have to get what I was reading or what I was writing about; you don't even have to decipher my handwriting: this is just a visual aid so you see what annotations and notes look like." But I'm not persuaded that they will be reassured. My thought now is that I'll give them the handout that explains what I want them to do--and then I'll ask them if seeing examples of me doing the same thing would help or simply intimidate. Or maybe a little intimidation is not altogether a bad thing--though I don't want to send them fleeing for the hills immediately.

And speaking of that: right at the moment, enrollment in my 101s is insanely low. This is not, I hasten to assure you, because of my reputation as the psycho bitch from hell. Enrollment is down across the board, and now that we have the new ENG100 class--which combines a bit of remediation with credit-bearing work--I suspect those sections are filling like mad and there are fewer students who are considered suitable for the outer edges: 001 (remedial) and 101 (credit bearing). Also, sad to say, students often enroll at NCC at the last possible second for various reasons: they weren't sure they were going to go to college at all; they thought they'd get accepted somewhere better and didn't; they're too lazy and unmotivated to realize that if they plan to go to school in the fall, they really do need to register. A large proportion of them fit into that last category, so the two weeks before classes start is always a madhouse, especially in Advisement, when students appear, wild-eyed and in a flop sweat, desperate to put together a schedule they like when all the courses they wanted at the times they wanted are already filled. My courses are late afternoon, but they fall into a sort of "neither fish nor fowl" time of day when students who work may not have finished their shifts yet and those who don't want to be done with classes earlier in the day. As of right now, there are five students in the earlier section, three in the later.

But I'm not worried: those are "gut" courses, so they'll fill--or Bruce will do what he calls "leveling," in which he moves students around so they're more evenly spread across the sections at any given time. And I don't have to worry about my elective, Fiction Writing: it filled almost immediately (two of the students were in my classes both semesters last year), and even if someone drops out, someone else is very likely to pick up the seat, as the class fulfills the "fine and performing arts" requirement, and a lot of students think it will be an easy A. (Hah.)

In any event, I hadn't planned to come in today: I was going to wait until tomorrow, when I have to be in the area anyway for a doctor's appointment, but I'm glad I did. I shouldn't have a lot that really needs to be done tomorrow (except for sending the stuff off to the printing office), but if I end up having knocked everything off my "to do" list with enough time to spare, I can always organize my bookcase, or start cleaning out old files (ye gods, talk about an endless task).

For now, however, I will draw this post to a close. My third of the summer, if I'm counting correctly: a banner year for "break time" posts!

Monday, July 14, 2014

A rare summertime post

I've been working on syllabi and assignments yesterday and today. Yesterday, I worked mostly on Fiction Writing--largely taking into account the feedback I got from students that they wanted more writing exercises from the beginning, less reading. I'm still giving a fair amount of reading, but I've significantly codified what I want students to look for and note when they do read, focusing on elements of the story construction and craft. I'm also trying to tie the choice of reading to the writing exercises--and I'm giving them specific at-home exercises to work on, in addition to writing their stories. So not only was I working on the assignment schedule--which I like, I think, though I need to check it again when I've been away from it for a while--I also was reworking some of the handouts and creating new ones, essentially one for each of the literary elements I want them to locate in the readings.

NOTE: I actually wrote this one ages ago, but it seems I never posted it--or if I did, I used a different title and now don't recognize it. Do I repeat myself?

In any event, I wanted to note that I was doing some "real" reading (of the "I have to use the intellectual side of my brain" variety) and had an idea about how I wanted to make the 101 students work through their reading so, as I said...

I've been following that approach myself, to see how it feels. It is--as former student Natasha once said
about reading logs--hell on a stick, but damned if it doesn't work. I read and annotate the text like I normally do, using all my own little notations (arrows, stars, and so on) and writing comments in the margins--but then I go back over my own annotations and expand on them in a notebook, revisiting thoughts, working on questions, making connections. The expansion on the annotations truly does help me hold on to ideas better, longer.

Of course, I know students won 't be able to do as much as I do, or get as much out of it, but I'm hoping the practice helps. I've formatted the prompts for their expanded annotations to focus their attention on writing out their understanding of what the author has to say: that's always the trick, to get them past mere summary or superficial paraphrasing. I don't know if this will work any better than the hundred or so other things I've tried, but we'll see.

And I did some preliminary research on the first topic I want to cover with them; I don't know yet what I'm going to use from what I've found, but I do want to have at least one or two things that we all read together, in addition to sending them off to do research on their own.

I was thinking I'd have them read specific pages from the handbook, as I used to do--but in order to ensure that they actually do the reading and, more important, understand that it has something to do with their writing, I need to do something more than just assign the pages: they'd either have to have homework on it, or in-class quizzes or something--and I'm not at all sure I want to spend the time and energy on that. On the other hand, I want them to actually use the handbook: students in the 102 classes didn't do that much, and if I'm going to make them buy the book, it seems I should do enough with it to make it worth the purchase.

I've also been thinking about scheduling conference weeks with them. Part of that thought is coming out of the meeting about the seminar hours that we had on Monday. (Long story what "seminar hours" are: I'll explain some other time.) We won't have a system in place for those hours for a year, but I'm already thinking about how I'd handle them and wondering if reinstating conferencing would do it. Because I'm reinventing 101 from the ground up, it's easy enough for me to simply have the students read less and spend more time with them one-on-one--which god knows they all would benefit from receiving--but it is pretty fucking exhausting, I have to say.

And right at the moment, I'm almost blind from having been focused on the computer for hours, and I can feel my brains turning to pancake batter (oooooo, pancakes!)

It's potentially endless

I've spent hours both yesterday and today working on the revamped 101 classes--and not only am I about to go blind (almost literally: I need to see the eye doctor and may have to finally give in to bifocals--or even trifocals)--but my mind is starting to experience vapor lock. Every little piece I nail down needs another something to go with it: this assignment needs that handout needs information about what to do needs a due date that makes sense in the overall scheme of things....

Yikes and likewise zoiks.

It is starting to pull together, I think, which is a good thing (and relieves some stress). My impulse is to keep whacking away at it, as if I could get it all completely pulled together and checked off the list permanently by tomorrow. However, as with anything important, I know that what I really need is to take some time away from it all, then print out what I've got and go over it slowly and carefully, thinking carefully about each piece, reworking as necessary (certainly proofreading).

The hardest part for me, always, is to try to get inside the students' heads: to make the assignments clear and to provide enough information that there's no wiggle room ("but you didn't say we had to...") without creating a tsunami that simply knocks the students into a stupor. Too much information, they freeze up, overwhelmed and unable to process anything. Too little, they're confused.

Lordy-dordy, what a conundrum.

While part of me feels like saying "See? Teachers don't get 'summer off,'" I have to say that I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I can do this work any time that pleases me and from the comfort of my own home--and I freely admit that even with the work I have a hell of a lot of time to myself when I do absolutely no work whatsoever (except for the thinking about it part, which is pretty much continual). I do have summer "off," despite the work that I do over the summer. It's a whole different ball of wax than the work of being in the trenches with the students--and I do find this work very gratifying, albeit draining, mentally.

I also tend to get so caught up that I forget to get out of my chair, and then I find myself thinking "why does my body feel so weird?" Oh, yeah: I haven't had anything to drink for hours, and I haven't eaten, and I've scarcely moved any muscles except those it takes to type. No wonder my hips and knees protest when I finally stand up.

That said, it really is time to stand up, get a drink, maybe even eat something (can you imagine?). But I wanted to post something about the work I'm doing--and I may post more, as this continues to come together (or fall apart). The rare "I'm on break" post. But I'm stopping before I really do go blind.