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Thursday, October 30, 2014

And better still

For a little while, I thought the subject of tonight's post was going to be "the humiliation that won't die." The colleague who was so upset about my teaching the class she should, by all rights, have gotten put a copy of her preference form in my mailbox yesterday, so when I got in today, there it was--and honestly, she did everything anyone could possibly expect to indicate just how much she wanted that particular section. I can't go back to her and say "Oh, but you didn't indicate..." or "Oh, but you said...." She might as well have indicated her preference in neon.

I wrote to her and said that I was all the more baffled that she hadn't gotten the course--which I am, although I'm sure there were reasons at the time. I'm afraid one reason may be simply that I picked my courses before we did her schedule--but even so, if I'd known how much she wanted that class, I wouldn't have taken it out from under her; I'd have settled for something else (or at least I like to think I would have been gracious and honorable enough to cede the course to her). I apologized again.

Then I got a long e-mail from her, in which she said that the fact that it happened twice in a row "strained credulity" and that she saw it not just as something that happened to her but as a pattern that seemed to be getting worse: unqualified or underqualified faculty being given creative writing courses when creative writing faculty are not. Because she perceives that as a pattern, she said that, despite my assurances, she didn't feel at ease about the issue. She further explained that she'd been originally slated to observe me teaching the Fiction Writing class but that she asked to switch assignments with someone else, as she didn't think she could be fair and impartial--which I think is honest and honorable. And she hastened to say that she absolutely supports my application for promotion and wouldn't want to jeopardize it in any way, and she hoped I know her well enough to believe in her integrity about that.

My turn for a long e-mail, which I hope you don't mind if I quote:


"I fully understand your concerns, and I agree with you entirely that the methods for course assignments need to be more carefully considered in terms of qualifications--across the board but particularly in regard to Creative Writing faculty. You are quite right to bring the matter to light and to ensure that the issue is clearly addressed, especially by the scheduling committee. I hope you know that I am a firm ally in this issue, and I will do everything I can to address it so that you do feel at ease--not just personally but in defense of the Creative Writing Program and its faculty.

"I am truly ashamed that I am teaching a course for which I am not qualified, especially when someone with your qualifications has specifically requested the course and not received it. I hope you believe my assertion that I honestly did not know that you had asked for that class--and that if I had known, I would not have taken it. Nevertheless, my individual culpability is my responsibility, no matter what the process was. I also hope you believe me when I say that I will never again transgress against my own standards regarding the need for the best qualified faculty to teach any course. I shouldn't have taken the assignment, and I will not teach the course again.

"You are a person of deep integrity and you are scrupulously fair in everything I have ever seen you do: you are a professional I respect and admire greatly. The fact that you asked to have the observation reassigned testifies to your sense of what is right and to your professionalism, and I thank you for your clarity in explaining the entire situation to me. I know that you are a supportive colleague and will review my promotion application with the clarity and collegiality that you bring to all your work. I hope you know me well enough to believe I am also a colleague you can trust."
 
 
When I saw another e-mail from her after I got back from classes, I thought, "Oh, god..." but no: it was very sweet. She said she also respects me and feels affection for me, and she suggested that the next time we meet each other, we hug and then let the whole thing go. Perfect. Yes: that sounds like exactly what should happen next.
 
So, well, whew.
 
Then, as planned, I went to my first 101 classes, sat them in a circle, and just talked with them for a while. It was very interesting. After some preamble about wanting them to succeed but seeing that they are not coming through on the work, I said, "Am I asking too much?" First, we discussed the "Daily 25." After some conversation, the agreement was that I'd still start each class with that, but students are encouraged to remember that they're optional, extra credit--and only do them when doing so does not interfere with their ability to do their other work. Then, the readings: am I asking too much? The problem is the difficult of their keeping on top of the reading on a new subject while they're still working on their papers on the old subject. That led to talking about the papers, and again: am I asking too much? One young woman said that she doesn't find any value in the revision process, that it's too much--but I pointed out she has not, in fact, gone through it with me yet, as she hadn't turned in the first version of either paper in time for the revision steps.
 
That almost turned into a bit of a battle (especially when she said she'd already learned all about how to do revision in high school: that got my dander up), but another student--the sole remaining member of the two buddies I may have mentioned--asked her about her process, and when she detailed it, I said, "So, why don't you submit your paper earlier in your process?" It took a while for her to get what I was suggesting, but when she did, she was happy to give that a whirl.
 
Across the board, they said they like getting the amount of feedback I give; they just wanted more time to work on it. So I've ditched the second submission of three: they won't get much (if any) sentence level feedback from me, though I will let them know what the problems are just in overall bullet points (comma splices, fragments, "static," whatever)--and it's incumbent on them to get the help they need for that stuff, either by coming to me individually or going to the Writing Center (where they will also get feedback for further revision, which is good).
 
Now that they have more time to work on their revisions, they feel like they can keep up with the reading better--and I'm happy to have them spend more time working through the revising, assuming they actually do so.
 
And then we had a lively conversation about the reading, which was great.
 
I set the second class up in a circle, and I essentially told them what I'd worked out with the previous class, checking in with them along the way to see if they agreed. One student (the Young Activist) said she relies on the second version and doesn't want to lose it. OK: it's optional. If you want it, we can do it. Otherwise, just go from first version to final.
 
Since we spent less time hashing out what they need and what they feel they can do, we had more time to talk about the reading--and their discussion was far more sophisticated than the first group. That difference between the two classes is pretty well true across the board: the second class is more sophisticated, has more students of higher intellectual wattage--and more who are doing well in terms of staying on top of the work. But I like the first group too: they're a lot of fun in their own way.
 
And the main thing is, I walked away from both classes feeling good about where I left the students, about the adjustments I've made, about what I've learned.
 
So despite all the emotional upheaval of the last days--or maybe in part because of that upheaval--this was a very good week. I gained some profoundly important insights; it kind of doesn't get better than that.
 
I am, however, feeling like I've run several marathons, so enough for now. I'll do a little more online work for the classes, given this restructuring, and then I'll head for the hills.
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Better

I pampered myself this morning, to make up for the emotional upheaval of yesterday: I slept in (not terribly late, but it was very nice not to have to answer to an alarm), and I bailed on Advisement. It's remarkable to me how much just that little thing did to lighten my feeling of burden. Things aren't even difficult in Advisement these days; it's just having to be there that feels like it's weighing me down.

I got a few papers graded, but I confess I spent a lot of time putting together the grade sheets for the 101 classes: I want the students to see for themselves just what they're doing in terms of their grades. I'm deeply disappointed that, in the earlier section, the students with the most potential are either completely AWOL (the young man with the most obvious intellectual wattage) or might as well be (a young woman who is clearly intelligent enough to do well but must be used to being allowed to skate by on simply her potential, as she has turned in almost nothing all semester--and always has an excuse).

The other section is somewhat better, in terms of the remaining students buttoning it up and getting work turned in, but I feel I need to have something tantamount to group therapy with them--especially with the earlier section.

As I ate my lunch (very belatedly), I was reading portions of a book by Buck Brannaman and William Reynolds. Brannaman is famed as the inspiration for the novel The Horse Whisperer, and the book is something between a collection of personal narratives and inspirational writing. But one phrase stood out to me: apparently, Buck told a participant in one of his clinics to replace fear with learning.

Replace fear with learning.

I want to have that on every single handout I give my students. I want to give them T-shirts with that as the slogan. I want to give them embroidered samplers to hang above their computers at home. That is precisely, exactly, what I want them to do.

But it's too late for most of the students in this semester's classes, as I've already lost them. The ones who are left? I don't know what to do. I truly don't. If I give them the grades they're legitimately learning, most of them will fail the course. If I push out the ones who are failing, in essence force them to withdraw--for their own benefit, so they don't blow their GPAs before they even get a chance to start their academic careers--I'll end up with about three students in each class.

It just drives me wild that even the students who could do it, who have the chops to make it, are falling by the wayside. And no matter how many "brilliant" ideas I think I have for next fall, I simply cannot come up with anything that will help this semester. All I can think to do is sit down with them, put all the work aside, and talk. Tell them what I see, ask them why, ask them what they think would make sense at this point. Maybe they'll have useful insights. Maybe, even if they don't, I'll be able to get a sense of what's going on from what they do say, from the blind-spots or fears I deduce from how they respond to what I say.

The bottom line is, I cannot teach them if they don't do their part. And they're not.

So, I suppose that begs the question, how can today possibly be better than yesterday? It's better because nothing is coming at me from the outside--except, I must say, some truly lovely support. Last night I got a very kind e-mail from one of the members of the Creative Writing Committee, expressing admiration for my honesty. Today, one of the co-chairs of the committee pulled me aside to give me a hug and told me she doesn't want me to be upset. I have good colleagues, and I don't believe anyone truly thinks badly of me: even the colleague who was so angry made a point of saying she didn't want to make it an issue between us personally. And because I didn't go to Advisement, and because my own students today were part of a master class by the novelist who was on campus for our Literature Live! series, I didn't need to really be "on." I could be there, participate, do my job (do it well), and still be rather snail-like in my shell.

I'm actually pretty well over the upheaval, but I do want to be very quiet and still for a while. Oddly enough, I think I can take some of that quiet and stillness into the classes tomorrow. I don't have to be "on" in the way I usually do, if I do as I intend. I want to put the desks in a small circle, and just talk. Maybe the entire period. Just talk. I don't need to be the Hard Professor; I just want to be a person in the room with other people, all of us ostensibly with the same goal in mind, none of us sure how to get there.

It's very late--again--and I do need to get in here relatively early tomorrow so I can get the papers done. It's sad that there are so few papers, but as always, that does make my life easier. And we'll see what happens.

We're officially past the half-way point now: I see each class thirteen more times before the semester is over (actually, twelve: a sub will cover one of the days with the 101s and I will cancel the last day of class for the Fiction class, as I'll be getting on a plane later that day). The roller-coaster is gathering speed, so whatever does happen, it won't be happening for very long--and then this semester will just be a story that I tell about my past. I find that very comforting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Truly, unbelievably fucking awful day

It started with a meeting with the retirement fund representative. If I want to get even 2/3 of my current salary when I retire, if everything continues as it has been (no sudden influxes of wealth, no stock-market crashes), I can't retire until I'm 71.

Fuck.

Of course, there are other options (reduce my living expenses so I can live on half my current salary and/or develop other sources of income to supplement what I've got in retirement funds), but since I got started late getting serious about all this, even adding to what I'm putting into the accounts isn't going to make a hell of a lot of difference.

Then, I went to a meeting of the Creative Writing committee. One of the topics was the need to establish necessary faculty credentials so that information is in the proposal for a new discrete AA degree in Creative Writing. I agreed with the importance to do that, noting that I only got to teach Fiction Writing because a section was going unassigned--and a colleague nearly tore my head off: she specifically asked for that particular class and section both last fall and this, and she had given courses as her first priority, and she has an MFA with an extensive publication history as a fiction writer, and she's absolutely right: she should have gotten the course. Both times. She and I have the same seniority, and she has the credentials, and she asked for it following all the procedures that should guarantee that she got it. The only reason I can think why she didn't is because the time didn't work with the rest of her schedule, but we truly should have built her schedule around that course. On top of feeling true guilt about having been very self-serving in taking the class--and violating my own sense of what is fair and right in doing so (as I know damned well I'm not really qualified to teach creative writing, or Mystery and Detective Fiction, for that matter)--I also felt professionally culpable, as a member of scheduling. I was so upset about the whole thing that I started to cry in the meeting. I didn't cry much (though my voice broke and there were tears on my face), but after the meeting was over, I did: I really cried hard.

I could cry now, thinking about it.

I did something I knew was not really right, and in doing so, I took something away from a colleague I respect and admire, one who deserved the thing I took. I didn't do it with any malice (and I didn't, in fact, know that she'd put the course as her number one choice), but I've gotten plenty righteously indignant when someone unqualified, or even underqualified, teaches one of my favorite courses (Native American Lit, Nature in Lit), so my own hypocrisy disturbs me. All I can say is, I won't do it again. Ever. Even if it means I teach four comps, I will not betray my own sense of what is correct, certainly not for my own selfish interests.

I carried the conversation about qualifications into P&B, too. From the day I joined scheduling, it's bothered me that there isn't anything specific for us to refer to that clearly delineates who is qualified to teach what. When new faculty request a course they've never taught before, they provide an explanation of their qualifications--but that ends up going with their course request forms and in effect has vanished. When senior faculty request a course they've never taught before, we've pretty much just said, "The person has seniority and therefore gets the course." So my request of P&B was that we devise a way to get everyone's qualifications, regardless of their seniority (we already have very clear parameters for what constitutes qualifications)--and then have a central repository for that information, so every time we do scheduling, we can simply refer to it. Turns out, Bruce does have a spread sheet with exactly that--but it's out of date and incomplete, so we need to get it up to date and keep it up to date.

Of course, that's one more task that "someone" has to do--and often "someone" is me. I hope this doesn't end up being my job, but I have a sneaking suspicion that either I will do it or it won't get done.

There was a lot of other sense of unpleasantness in P&B, just because of the screwed up politics of this place, but next week I'll have an easy meeting of it, as the main agenda item will be review of promotion folders, and I am recused from that discussion.

So, OK, P&B wasn't so bad (though I was still vibrating with the upset in Creative Writing). I went to the first class. Officially there are still 16 students in the class, but really there are only eleven, and of the eleven, eight eventually showed up. Three had papers. No one had done the reading. I said, "OK, see you Thursday." They sat there. "Seriously: bye! Go away. See you Thursday." They sat there, clearly utterly stunned. Finally I got them to believe that I was serious, and they rather sheepishly got up and left (all but one, who wanted to talk to me about his paper). Two poked their heads back in to ask if this counted as an absence. I explained that yes: showing up to class unprepared is a "no books" absence. If you're not prepared for class, you're not really there. On the other hand, I said, I am taking into consideration that at least you two had your papers with you, so whether I decide to "count" the absence at the end of the semester is yet to be determined. I'm glad you had your papers. Good for you. But come to class prepared.

I then actually had a lovely conversation with the student who stayed to talk about his paper. Turns out he's the younger brother of a student who was in the Fiction Writing class last year (and who was also briefly in Nature in Lit)--and he has a wonderfully wide-ranging curiosity and a fly-paper intellect (rather like my own): all kinds of stuff gets stuck to it. He's the kind of student who has so many ideas and sees so many connections that getting focused is his biggest problem--but I told him I love his process: reading, exploring, looking for connections. Perfect. I'm not thrilled that his paper is going to be late, but I am delighted with the way he's going about it.

He finally left, and I noodled around with paperwork for a little bit. I went to buy a yogurt (as I didn't have time for lunch between all my meetings): I had about $2.50 on me, and the yogurt cost almost $3. For a cup of yogurt. Judas priest.

So, hungry, I went to the second class. Eight students were there, five had papers. Three had done the reading. "OK, see you Thursday." Same problem persuading them that I was serious--but in that group, the three who had done the reading were actually very disappointed that they wouldn't be able to discuss it. I was more cheerful dismissing that lot, as at least some of them had done the reading, but I did say there weren't enough who had to sustain a conversation, so as they were leaving, one asked if it would have made the difference if she'd done the reading. I didn't say one way or the other, but she felt bad that she was at least in part responsible for the fact that they were being "thrown out." Another said, "Professor, you're throwing us out." Well, I'm sure not going to stand up here and stare at you--or make three people carry the weight of the entire conversation....

And one of my best and brightest didn't have her paper done. Deeply disappointing.

The only good news in all this is that I'm not worried about getting everything marked before Thursday's classes. No, it's the same worry I've had all term: there won't be enough of them left, with sufficient intellectual wattage, for any kind of interesting discussion.

I'm now wondering if I should bother having subs for the classes the day I'm going to be gone, or if I should just cancel the classes and let the students submit the final versions of their papers even later. I may check in with the office staff tomorrow to see how that would work, to change my mind at this point. I really don't want a sub to have to go through this torture.

I'm not kidding: perhaps I wouldn't actually rather have an actual tooth pulled, but there sure isn't a significant difference.

OK, so working to do at least a little reframing before I go: I spent some time finishing up the handout for the final paper assignment and in the process clarified (even more clearly, I hope) the submission requirements--which I transferred back to the other paper assignments, so I have it there when I update materials for the next time I teach 101.

And I do intend to teach 101 again in the fall. I feel like there are things I've learned this semester that I want to put into practice, see if they help. One is that grading thing I talked about last week. Another is more careful staging through the steps of the papers--with a lot more from me about the importance of hanging on and persevering through each step. Maybe I need to simplify the steps, too--maybe only do two papers but break them down even further: process, process, process. I'll probably reconsider the environmental topic--at least in terms of how I frame it (it's too important to leave out entirely). I'll ditch the daily 25 (they're still making the mistakes), but I don't know if I'll go back to taking points off for "static" (AKA bozo errors): more thinking to do on that.

And not incidentally, I already have good news for the fall: I will be teaching a course in the Multidisciplinary Studies program (which is run by our very own William): MDC120: Issues in Science, Technology and Society. The first times William approached me about possibly teaching the course, I was very reluctant, as I wasn't sure how to frame it, but now I think it could be extremely very cool.

And I guess that's good enough to go home on.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Half successful

The "brilliant" plan for today was to have students start brainstorming, noting ideas, working from their sources to simply churn out ideas, and I'd check in with them as they worked. I originally thought I'd pair them up so they could bounce ideas off each other, ask each other questions, but on my way to class I realized the idiocy of that idea: it presumes that they have a much better sense of how to question their way into an idea than they actually possess. Instead, I realized, they'd just reinforce each others' sense of "I don't know what I'm doing." I guess not terribly surprisingly, the plan was a complete dud in the first class and flew much better in the second. Perhaps the difference can be explained if I simply note that in the first class, there was not a single A on the first paper (I think the best grade may have been a B-), and in the second class there were three A's--in fact, two students got A+ grades. I don't think I've ever had that happen in a class before--especially a class that small.

On the other hand, one student in the second class plagiarized, but it was very clearly an instance in which he didn't understand how to avoid it: he attached the sources and highlighted the passages he used, but in the paper, his paraphrases were not only unattributed but were too close in language to the original, and in a few places, he even used exact wording, without quotation marks or citations. It's too bad, too: if he'd submitted his second version in time for me to evaluate it, I'd have been able to flag the problem in time for him to fix it, but as it is, he got two big zeroes: one for the revision grade, one for the final product grade.

I had a serious talk with the Bump on a Log from the first class, too--and she still doesn't get it. She says she'll spend the weekend getting caught up. I told her that if the work could all be done in a weekend, I wouldn't need a full semester to teach the course--but she wants to hang in there and keep trying, so, OK. I told her that I need to see her actually come through on her assertions that she's going to pull it together, but what I see now looks a lot more like a high school student who thinks she can skate by than a college student who knows that she needs to actually do the work. I pointed out that she's not coming through in class, either. She said, "I don't do anything in class," and I said, "Precisely. That's the problem: you don't do anything." She argued that she participates in the group discussions and I told her that's not good enough (largely because she doesn't seem to have done any of the reading, so her "participation" in the discussions is mostly just her riffing on the work others have done, not making any real contributions of her own). Finally, I said that I'd let her withdraw later in the semester if it looks like she can't pass but that I won't lecture her again (this was the third time, after all). I will expend no more worry, time, or effort on her.

I had a similar talk with a student in the second session: she had submitted the final version of her paper on time, but the first two pages were illegible because clearly she was using a printer that was running out of ink. I told her I needed pages I could read, and she gave me the story about how her father won't buy more ink.... There are printers on campus, I pointed out. Yes, but she's only on campus at X times, and won't be on campus again.... Blah blah blah. Today, I told her that she needs to take responsibility for that sort of thing, even if it's deeply inconvenient, no matter what she needs to do: as soon as she saw that the pages were illegible, she needed to do anything and everything necessary to get a readable printout to me. She also said she lost her syllabus, lost the information about how to get to my home page, lost my e-mail address, so she couldn't contact me to find out how to get to my home page. I only now thought, "Wait, haven't I sent out a number of e-mails to you individually and to the class as a whole? And isn't my e-mail address on those?" At the time, I simply gave her the information, but I said to her, as I said to the young woman in the other class: what I see looks like someone who is still operating in high school mode, not someone who has made the switch to college mode.

Those students who are not yet dialed in to what college requires are still in for a hell of a bumpy ride, as I've told them that the gloves are coming off. Some of students, however, perhaps enough of them--especially in the second class--are really getting it. I'm proud of them.

Oh, and just to note: the Wreck Victim was not in class today. Absence seven. I truly don't expect to see him again, unless it's to sign a withdrawal form for him.

Shifting gears, however, to a thought about a way to calculate grades that will allow students to track their own progress, or (more to the point) lack thereof. It's all about numbers--and I actually thought about this briefly about a hundred years ago when I heard the idea floated in a professional development event. Here's the idea:

Each student starts with 2,000 points. Every assignment has a point value attached. For instance, the revision portion of paper 1 would be worth up to 200 points. If a student earns a C+, which I calculate as a 78, I'd say the student has earned 156 of 200 points, so the student would subtract 44 points from 2,000. (Since some students like to know letter grades, too, I could also give them numeric values for paper grades: 180-200 is an A; 170-179 is a B+, and so on.) And say each particular homework assignment is worth 12 points. Each time a student misses a homework assignment, he or she would subtract 12 points from the total. I'd also provide them with a numeric range for an end result: If the student ends up with anywhere from 1200 to 1284 points (rounding off to the nearest 10), that's a D; anywhere from 1285 to 1385 is a D+--and so on.

What I like about the system is that the percentage weights are already built in to the raw numbers--and that although the students can see that some assignments are "low stakes" (12 points instead of 200), they can also see the effect of repeatedly missing those assignments as they're subtracting from the total. It also puts the students in charge of tracking their own progress: they don't have to come to me to see how they're doing; it will be visually obvious with each assignment--and that will save me a lot of the "it's now mathematically impossible for you to pass the class" lectures. It will be very clear: if the student has subtracted down below 1200 and the semester isn't over yet....

I'm actually somewhat jazzed to try this out--next fall.

I am, at last, starting to feel the very early sensations of a sabbatical coming up. I'm still running about a bit wild-eyed (I have to draft up letters in support of the sabbatical applications, I have to get more of the stuff together for my promotion application, I have to track down the members of a subcommittee to see who's doing what, I have to input some stuff into Taskstream and remember what to bring up at the next assessment meeting, I have to I have to I have to...), but I can see that we're about to pull over the top of that long uphill climb: the fierce rush of the plummet to the end of the semester is almost upon us. And then, oh heavens, and then I can put this all down for a bit. I can almost imagine it. Almost.

Right now, I'm simply looking forward to playing hookey on Monday. I've already informed my students and the office that I'm canceling my office hour and class; I just have to send off a quick e-mail to Advisement to let them know I'll be out, and then I don't even have to do that much on Monday morning. I will, of course, check e-mail a time or two during the day (since my 101 students have their second papers due on Tuesday), but mostly--well, mostly I don't know what I'll do, except sleep as late as I want and do whatever I want. That's a happy day, right there.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

So, here's the deal.

It looks like I can get about 3-4 papers done in an hour, depending on the quality of the paper. So far, I have two "problem" papers for the first session--and may get at least the first two versions from another student so he can get some kind of grade for the assignment. Potentially, then, I have fourteen papers yet to mark: those three plus the eleven for the second session.

And I'm going to gamble that I can get them done tomorrow. I will have to get up at 6 again (and I'm glad I did that today), but I may even be able to crank them out a little more efficiently tomorrow, assuming I don't get seriously interrupted.

I did have a small but pleasant interruption today: a student from last semester dropped by to ask me quickly about what he should do for the personal essay he needs to write to apply to bachelor's programs. I could have brushed him off, but I like him and want him to do well--and it was only about 15 minutes of talking, so that's about one paper's worth of time I gave him.

I also spent longer than I anticipated after the Fiction Writing class was observed today, talking with Cathy about the observation (she was the observer)--but we also got chatting about various things, which always seems to happen. So that was maybe two papers' worth of time, but worth it, I think.

The class was great: the students did their thing beautifully, demonstrating their comfort and confidence and familiarity with the process. I was proud of them and happy to have a chance to show them off.

And--not so very parenthetically--I decided to go to Advisement after all today. I'm not sure why I flipped the coin that way: I suppose most of it is my tendency to be the good, responsible girl but I think I also wanted to see whether I could, in fact, get a good whack of papers done and still fulfill my time there. And I could, and did. Next week is going to be interesting, as I am not going to be in on Monday (spoiling myself just a trifle), and I get the first version of the second paper from the 101 students on Tuesday, have to have them back on Thursday. Of course, with the significantly reduced number of students even from the first go-round (when I still didn't get papers from everyone), the work load will be a hemi-demi-semi-skosh lighter, but first versions are still demanding: that's the revision level, in which I'm giving feedback about thesis, structure, argument, logic, support, none of which can be handled with just a quick symbol or abbreviation.

Ah well. Que sera sera.

As for specific students, the (metaphoric) Wreck Victim responded to an e-mail I sent today: I told him he really must withdraw, as he cannot, cannot pass--but he wants to hang in there and get what he can out of the semester. I've been to this fire a number of times before, and almost without exception, students who say that come to one, maybe two more classes and then end up vanishing anyway. I hope he breaks the pattern, but I'd be surprised. More power to him, though, that he wants to try.

Conversely, tomorrow I intend to give another student as close to the boot as I ever give. She is clearly not with the program, still seems to think if she shows up breathing she'll pass--and she cannot, cannot, cannot pass. If I'd really wanted to get the message across, I would simply not have accepted her paper at all--and that is, in retrospect, what I should have done--but I think I was still in the mind-set of "I need to keep bodies in the room." Her body, however, does nothing apart from perhaps provide a little warmth from her physical presence, but otherwise I think she drags the class down, significantly. And honestly, I'm just tired of her. Tired of the bump on a log approach to education. Tired of her staring at me like a flounder throughout the entire class period. Go away, kid, you bother me.

I do need to get out of here, but let me end on a more positive note: I have a plan for tomorrow that I'm going to be very curious to try out--and I have an idea about a grading system, which I hope to remember to explain in the blog post tomorrow. So, I leave myself with those pleasantly anticipatory thoughts and you all with the cliff-hanger. Stay tuned for another exciting installment of Prof. TLP's view.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Well, hell.

In a spell of sleeplessness between 4 and 5 a.m., I made the executive decision to reset the alarm for 7--and then I have no idea what happened, but I was later than usual getting out of the house. And now I'm facing the rather dire consequences. Twenty-one papers to grade--and less than two days to do them in. I grant you, grading final versions generally goes much more quickly than the other stages, but still. I don't really want to bail on Advisement tomorrow (for work reasons) and Monday (for personal ones), but I'm going to do both. I bailed on P&B today, which helped me get through all the stories for tomorrow's workshop, but I ended up sitting through the entire department meeting prior to P&B--an extremely rare event for me.

About that department meeting: it was not the bloodbath it could have been, because Cathy presented things beautifully (and yes, because the committee has worked fucking hard to turn the whole seminar hours thing into something of actual value to us as faculty)--but people did, of course, raise (generally very self-serving) concerns and the usual voice of outrage, negativity, gloom and dire predictions made herself heard in her usual caustic and abrasive way. (But I don't have strong feelings about that or anything.) Still, some of the issues raised or considerations floated were well worth hearing--especially the more pragmatic ones. No one had any serious issue with the various ways we proposed for them to fulfill the seminar hours, which is a relief--but the whole thing is still an enormous hairball and will be challenging in the extreme to sort out in terms of actual logistics. Bruce did say that a lot of that work will be done in the spring, and I thought, "Hallelujah! I'll be on sabbatical, and the rest of them can work it out." The more arrogant, control-freakish aspects of my nature simultaneously worry that people will do it all wrong without me there to make sure it goes right--but I can remain in the loop electronically (can even come in for meetings if I really care about it that much), or I can just let go and trust my colleagues (and know that the thing will continue to morph over time).

The other issue was "seamless transfer," in which we've been told by SUNY that we have to reduce our degree requirements from 66 credits to 64. This has been the source of a lot of sturm und drang for some time now but--at least in the short term--the proposal for how to reduce the total number of credits doesn't affect us any. (Of course, Ms Outrage, Negativity etc. felt compelled to make the dire predictions there, too, but I'd be hard pressed to think of a situation that she couldn't find--and abrasively point out--a negative side to.) So my feeling about that whole thing is, I'll care if/when there's a reason too, but for now, I don't.

Classes were, um, interesting. The first session was pretty deadly dull: nine students, and a lot of them had not done the reading. I ended up giving them the lecture about being college students, having to suck it up and do the work, on time, and well in order to be successful. I wasn't even preaching to the choir, exactly: just about everyone in the room has been falling down in one way or another. And I had a nice talk after class with one student who has fallen particularly hard and far. I don't think I've mentioned her much if at all in the blog, but I consider her at least potentially one of the strongest students in the class, and although she's very quiet, she is charming and intelligent and capable of much better work than I've been seeing. I told her she's one of my favorite students--and she is--but she really needs to button it up if she wants to get through the class with anything like a decent grade (or, realistically, even a passing one). I love that she's working so hard--and another student, the young man I initially thought had a huge chip on his shoulder, made a point of telling me after class that for the next paper, he'll be sure to be on top of all the requirements. And probably the strongest (certainly the most intellectual) student of the bunch made a point of thanking me for the class, saying it really is helping him. Maybe he was just brown-nosing, but it felt genuine, so I'll take it as such.

The second session was better, albeit smaller. Two of the best students (in terms of intellectual wattage) were missing, but more of the students who were there had done the reading and were prepared. We sat in a circle instead of being in groups--and I think that will be the way I'll run both classes from now on, given the reduced number of students. There was some good conversation, and they're interested in the topic (for the most part).

What I love about both classes is that they're starting to recognize when they have an idea but not an argument. That's huge--and I'm not at all sure I can account for it. They're testing out possible thesis ideas in class, and we're trying to brainstorm together ways in which a topic could become an argument. I can't stress enough what an enormous intellectual step this is for them, even to start thinking that way. It almost doesn't matter whether they can actually come up with an argument; just the fact that they can recognize when they don't have one is significant, and the fact that they're grappling already with trying to find that focus--when the paper isn't due for a whole week!--is true progress.

That's a happy note to end on, I think. I don't want to think too much about that enormous stack of papers: that's a problem for tomorrow (and Thursday). I'll be happy that I'm getting through even to the limited extent that I am, and take that home with me. That's good for a day.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A week of early mornings ahead...

Despite my work over the weekend, I find that committee crap is still tangling up my feet and getting in the way of my progress through student work. I did get all the stories read and commented on for today's class, but it dawned on me today that I really need to return the papers to the students in the 101 classes this week, because their next papers are due next week (fuckfuckfuckfuck). Of course, I could jiggle the schedule, I suppose, but then other things will collide. And there really aren't that many papers (sadly enough)--but tomorrow I am scheduled to have three meetings in a row, straight up to class time. I'm trying to bail on two of the meetings (one having to do with the Assessment work I did over the weekend, the other being P&B), but I can't miss the department meeting, because that's when Cathy will present the work done by the seminar hours subcommittee to the department--and not only do I think it's important for me to be there to show some support, I also want to be there to hear what comes up from the faculty. I'm expecting mayhem to ensue, but I could be pleasantly surprised and find that our work has, in fact, cut a lot of the brouhaha off at the pass, as it were. (Talk about a mixed image. What does brouhaha look like as it's storming toward the mountains?)

Not much of great moment to report today, other than the run of the mill run of the mill, so to speak, grinding away at everything to try to keep the mountains from toppling over on me. The workshop in Fiction Writing went well. I'm interested to note that the Pseudo-Brit made a point of mentioning that he doesn't know American football--yet when I had my little conversation with him after class last week (about his stories being late), I thought I noticed that his accent faded away. I don't know--and it doesn't really matter--but I guess I'll allow him his identity as a Brit and stop with the Pseudo prefix. He was not quite as obnoxious in his feedback (though I caught my Sweet Student smiling to herself at some of his remarks, and I wanted to wink at her and smile in agreement); very clearly he was working hard to be less overbearing, more willing to admit that he might not be right in his way of seeing things. He is more vulnerable and insecure than might be apparent at first, and I confess to finding his clear desire to do well and to please very touching. The feedback is getting better across the board, I think--and I also notice that, in general, their reading notes have improved: they're starting to focus on things the way they need to as budding writers.

I wish I had a better sense of what to do with them on the days when we're not workshopping. I think I'm doing better this semester than I did the first time I taught the class, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. In a few weeks, one of my colleagues and I have a friendly meet over coffee and a baked goodie planned, and since she knows a lot more about all this than I do, I'll pick her brains, see if I can get some good ideas to try out for the remainder of the term.

My meeting with my Conversation Partner today was interesting. I did help him a little with some of his writing, just in terms of helping him see what his teacher was pointing out in his writing. Part of his neurological make-up is that he can come up with lots of discrete ideas but has trouble seeing connections between those ideas, so that was what I tried to focus on. But he was writing about animals (and clearly he loves animals and values their innocence, their emotional lives), so I got him talking about his dog, which warmed him up in that funny way that people on the autism spectrum have of showing that they're feeling warmth. He wanted to express that warmth at the end of our meeting but wasn't sure how to, so ultimately, he offered to shake my hand. I almost asked him if he does hugs (advice from a website about ways to communicate with people on the spectrum), but I hesitated just a fraction too long. I was charmed, however, by the way in which he was touched by our conversation.

"Sweet" seems to be the word of the day.

I'll be heading out of here in just a few minutes, but before I do, I want to try to organize the stacks of stuff--at least in very general terms--so no pearls bounce behind the furniture or fall through the floor-boards. The chaos in here is getting a trifle worrisome, and the chances of something disappearing are increasing as the stacks of paper grow higher. But I'll be in bright and early again tomorrow (6 a.m. alarm today, tomorrow, and maybe beyond, oh god), and I want to be able to dive pretty much straight in.

And now, off I go. The yonder isn't so wild or blue, but it is yonder....

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Even more rare than a summer-time post: a weekend post!

I've been in the office for a couple of hours now, trying to get things cleared off my desk and out of my brain so I can try to sleep the next two nights. Being away from campus on Thursday was worth the pulled tooth in some regards--god how I slept--but as I've been feeling better physically, I've been feeling increasingly anxious about all the work I left in such chaos when I left. I was sending off e-mails left, right, and center about various committee things that I wanted to get nailed down, all arising out of those meetings on Wednesday, but I realized that I wanted to get in here and get some things worked out, written up, and printed out--and that I'd feel more confident I wasn't forgetting anything if I could refer to my meeting notes.

I also thought I'd get a few of the stories read for Monday's workshop process, but that isn't going to happen. I carried them home with me when I left on Wednesday, and--having not looked at them since--I optimistically carried them back to the office today. Here, however, they're going to stay. I feel anxious about leaving them here, but I know myself well enough to know that I will not look at them tomorrow, and if they're in the house, I'll just feel shitty about the fact that I'm not looking at them. Better to leave them here and come in early on Monday to get a jump on them before I head to Advisement. I probably should bail on Advisement, to be sure I have enough time to get them all done (I may have students actually show up during my office hour on Monday: more on that in a minute), but right now my thought is that I may bail on Advisement a week from Monday, as an extension of my birthday celebration. I don't have to come in to submit my promotion application after all, so I don't think it will hurt to have the day to myself, or at least allow myself to have a late and lazy start.

The reason I may have a visitor in my office hour on Monday is that I'm hoping I get to talk to this semester's student-with-potential-whose-life-is-a-train-wreck. I've written about this young man before, but I don't think I've come up with a moniker for him, and I should. After telling me that he wanted to simply take a zero on the first paper entirely, as he was feeling overwhelmed trying to get caught up, he vanished from class again. I sent him another e-mail, telling him what to do so he can be ready for Tuesday--and his reply indicated that his situation is not getting better, may in fact be deteriorating. I believe I suggested before that he talk to the Center for Educational and Retention Counseling (hereafter CERC), but in my reply to this latest e-mail from him, I reinforced that recommendation--and told him that he and I should probably have a serious conversation about what he can realistically expect from this semester.

My concern is that he is now mentioning psychiatric problems that are just serious enough to be worrisome (albeit not, I think, dangerous to him or anyone else). If he's in that kind of difficulty, he really shouldn't be trying to deal with college, too. I told him that I don't want to lose him from the class--and I don't--but I also don't want him to cause unnecessary stress by taking on more than he can realistically handle.

So, I rather hope he does come in to talk to me, although I don't relish the hard realities I'll need to talk with him about--and I really don't relish the idea of losing him from the class, but my honest thought now is that he should withdraw from the entire semester and start again in the spring--or even later, depending on how things go in the rest of his life.

I also sent out a bunch of e-mails today, reminding students about portions of their paper submissions that are still missing, such as uploads to Turnitin, hard copies of previous versions--or even, in one case, the hard copy of this final version. That student asked me if he could e-mail the hard copy. I said, um, no, because then it wouldn't be a hard copy: it would be an electronic copy that I'd have to print. Apparently some of this terminology is simply opaque. And, of course, there are a few students who simply collapsed under the weight of the process--and again, I'm hating myself as a teacher, thinking I'm just too hard and ask too much. And what bugs me most is, once they decide to give up, I cannot reach them again: they vanish; e-mails do not reach them, and I'm not quite to the point where I'll actually call them on the phone, but even if I did, I don't think it would get them back in the room.

I really have to think about this before next fall. I think I need to talk to them at every single step, reminding them that they need to persevere, that the frustration they feel is good, that they can work through it ... whatever I can think of to say to keep holding on to them so they don't just shrivel up like snails doused in salt.

But this term, I don't know how much I can salvage. There are a few students--in addition to the Wreck Victim above--that I really hate to lose, because they have so much potential, but apparently, they're gone (or at least, they never submitted their papers).

You know, it actively hurts. More than the pulled tooth.

I'd love to end on a positive note here, but I just thought of something else I need to do (rework the scheduling preference form: fuck), so I'd better do that before I forget again--and then I really will get out of here. And Monday really is another day.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Huge, ungodly mess

When I left last night, everything on my desk was in neat, prioritized stacks, organized and clear. Now, it's like the aftermath of a flood: there's all sorts of flotsam from the day's meetings plus student work from both yesterday (which I carted to and from Advisement: I sorted out one stack and evaluated one paper: woo-hoo!). I feel like my office needs an exorcist.

And I'm struggling with students who are submitting papers late for the 101 classes, trying to figure out what's fair since I won't be on campus again until Monday. If they'd just fucking turn things in on time, that would be so nice. Ah well.

I also had to have a talk with the Pseudo-Brit today about being late with assignments. This is the second time that he has not turned in a story the week (never mind day) it was due, and he was late with his revision of his first story, too (long story about that). He's in the usual situation: has to work, has no time to study, so I told him that it's time to do the triage--or at least some reality testing. He believes he has to stay in all his courses this semester in order to transfer, but I suggested he find out if that is, in fact, true. (I didn't suggest that he might not actually pass all his classes, if he's struggling to get the work done, done well, done on time--in which case, pushing to try to get them all done this semester is going to backfire anyway, but that possibility does exist.) I assured him that I don't want to lose him from my class--which is true (and which he dismissed with a shrug, which could have seemed snotty but which I think is more likely a reflection of discomfort with accepting that kind of praise and encouragement)--but I did suggest that he might have to withdraw from something in order to make the kind of grades he's capable of. I also told him that although I don't usually take "points" off late assignments in creative writing classes, because I'm seeing a pattern here, if he continues to be late with his submissions, then the grades will be reduced, largely out of fairness to the other students.

It occurs to me that this could all be seen as a sort of cosmic pay-back for the kind of undergraduate I was: late with assignments (chronically), told some teachers I didn't care if all I got was a C (maddening), spotty in attendance--and awfully damned full of myself, with the arrogance and overweening pride that seems to be an intrinsic part of being young and intelligent. And now I have to go through what my own professors went through. I flatter myself that I was at least somewhat charming, but maybe that was all the more maddening to them. I feel like I need to track them all down and apologize, and tell them that I now understand exactly how they must have felt.

In just a few minutes here, I have to dash off to a doctor's appointment (having nothing to do with tomorrow's tooth extraction), so it seems I may have to simply leave the detritus on my desk until Monday, unless I get a wild hair (and am sufficiently free of discomfort) and come to campus over the weekend just to tidy things away prior to heading back into the usual Monday schedule. A little piece of me thinks, "Well, I could always call in 'sick' to Advisement," but I'm trying to refrain from bailing on that responsibility until the next go-round of first versions of papers for 101. On the other hand, by the time we get to the next round, I may only have five students left in total, so....

Aw jeez.

All the meetings today were torturous--especially the seminar hours committee (I came within a hair's breadth of saying, "You know what? You obviously don't really want input from us, so I resign; in fact, I'm going to retire completely...")--but I'm trying to see the committee experiences as good lessons in learning to let go: other people in this department are competent and capable, and I can hand the ball to them for them to run with. And, to end this on a more positive note: it felt simply wondrous to get my promotion application all neatly put into transparent sleeves inside a binder, with tabs for the sections and either the documents in place or place holders for where documents are missing, so I walked out of here last night feeling virtuous and unburdened. If I don't feel quite so fabulous tonight, that's OK: eventually, all this will be behind me one way or another. And in nine weeks, heavenly day, this really will all be behind me and I'll be on sabbatical. Oh glory be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I (half) suck at my job

Classes today were pretty awful, I thought. Well, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least awful and 10 being the most, they were probably about a 7. It works not to have a very specific plan as long as I have a very specific set of outcomes I want to achieve: get them to work on their MLA citations, for instance, or have an in-depth conversation about X reading. But since they were only working on their papers for today, they hadn't read anything for us to discuss. And since these were final versions of papers, there wasn't any further writing instruction I wanted to do. I tried showing part of The End of Suburbia: in the first class that was pretty much road-kill, in part because I hadn't arranged in advance to show a DVD so I didn't have the remote handy so I couldn't fast-forward past the boring bits.

Then a student kept starting to derail the conversation--not maliciously but because he has one of those minds that makes highly tangential connections, so a conversation about fast food led him to ask when they stopped putting coke in Coca-cola, which got us into a conversation about drugs, which is not the point of the paper (which is about the environment), but then--as far as I could tell out of nowhere--he asked what I thought about the connection between the CIA and LSD, and I said, in essence, "Nope, not going there." I did keep trying to bring the conversation back around to various topics that could work for the paper--and the best and brightest of the students in the class said that an entire cultural shift seems to be necessitated. Yes indeed.

Let me hasten to add, however,  that this student is the best and the brightest in terms of intellect and ability but not so much in terms of work ethic. He's not doing badly, but if he were more diligent about doing the work the way it should be done, he'd be off the charts, and as it is, he's bumping around the B+ margin. I probably need to talk to him about that.

In the second class, less discussion but they were more interested in watching at least part of the video--and I found the remote in that room so I was able to focus what I showed them a little better. Part of why they were more engaged with the video may be because I also gave them the option of doing a read-around of one of the articles instead--and I made them vote. At first, only two students expressed a desire one way or the other, but then I explained, no: there are only two options, and everyone has to vote for one of them. The video won. Fair enough.

In both classes I did a lot more just riffing on the various things I know about environmental issues than I might otherwise do--but I was trying to show them that there are potential hooks all over this topic that they can use to get themselves excited about it. But I never feel great about it when I'm the one doing most of the talking, especially when I clearly see students checking out in the back of the room.

I'm sure that part of why the classes were a bit deadly today was because they were so beaten up by having to finish the paper. One student in the second class talked to me before class started: "Professor, I gave up on this paper." I said, "No! You mustn't give up! What about working through frustration?" We chatted about it a bit, and it turns out she hadn't given up really: she just felt that she could have made the paper better in some way but wasn't sure what else to do. "Oh, then you didn't give up," I said. "You did exactly what you needed to do: you engaged in the process and you learned enough that now you're starting to see ways you can make your writing better. That's exactly what you needed to do, so in fact, you've done very well." She brightened up significantly, ended up feeling pretty good about herself, I think. She's got a lot of potential, so I'm hoping I can give her very good grades on at least the revision part of the process.

Of course, there were also absentees--and not just the ones who've clearly bailed on the semester. Since I have to cancel class on Thursday, I'm a bit concerned about getting papers from those missing students--if, in fact, they have anything to submit. I sent them e-mails about it, but of course I don't really expect them to get those e-mails. The students who are in trouble rarely are students who check their e-mail.

But the only reason I said I half suck at my job, instead of sucking at it entirely, is that I did pretty well in terms of keeping on top of committee work today: was ready for P&B, will be ready for tomorrow's Assessment meeting, hope to be ready for tomorrow's Seminar hours meeting....

And I have the first draft of my promotion folder completed. There's a lot that's missing or in question, so the pain-in-the-ass factor is not gone entirely but is at least significantly diminished for a while. I'm putting the pages into the binder tonight and will give it to my P&B mentor tomorrow--and then I hope not to think about it until after P&B looks at it the first week in November.

I do need to get out of here--have to run some errands before stores close--and I do need to make sure I have everything ready to carry with me to Advisement, as I'll be heading from Assessment straight to Advisement straight to Seminar Hours straight to class. In class, I fully intend to distribute stories to be workshopped next week and then let them all go. I don't even want to do a free-write with them, though I may change my mind when I'm actually there with them. Even though I have to cancel class on Thursday because I have to have a dental procedure, I'm still so looking forward to a day "off" that I can barely hang on until then. Isn't that a sad comment on where I am at the moment, that I'd rather literally have a tooth pulled than metaphorically pull teeth in the classroom?

Well, it's that time of semester.The roller-coaster ride continues.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Academic Progress Reports

They used to be called "early warning," but in "Their" infinite wisdom, "They" decided that calling the system "Academic Progress" was better--I guess because we can tell students they're doing well, in addition to telling them all the reasons why they're in trouble. In my 101s, the students who need some kind of warning (up to those who need to withdraw, period) far outweigh the ones who are doing OK, never mind those who are actually doing well. Well, this is the way it goes.

Only four students showed up for class today, which was pretty damned discouraging. I did try out a process, which at least used up a little time: I asked our department IT person to set up the room so I could project things from a computer onto a screen, and she did (she's quite wonderful)--and that allowed me to type in a student's freewrite so everyone could see it. We then proceeded to brainstorm ideas about how the little bit he'd written could be expanded into a story: what would the conflict be, what parameters would we have to figure out.... It went OK, but I'm realizing I truly need to pick the brains of my colleagues who also teach the course, find out what they do with most class periods. Longer free-writing? More workshopping? I'm at a loss here.

I also am hoping that everyone shows up next week when the class is going to be observed; if not, it's going to be a debacle of epic proportions.

My mind is boinging around all over the place: student stuff, paperwork, promotion application, trying to figure out what I'm forgetting in terms of committee tasks. Today felt modestly productive at least (despite the class being a bit of a clunker). I am, however, starting to truly regret that I signed up for the Conversation Partner thing again. Not only do I find that I rather resent having to take time out of my Monday evening to meet with a student, but this particular student is difficult in the extreme, because of whatever autistic-spectrum disorders he has. I can tell he's very sweet and cares deeply about his ability to do well, but trying to converse with him is very difficult. Ah well.

The office is a bit of a mess, but I'm going to leave it in a mess until I get in tomorrow morning. I've pretty well and truly hit the wall, so I'm going to simply fall in a heap, metaphorically speaking. Thank god tomorrow isn't today but is, in fact, another day.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Triumphant clash of cymbals and trumpet blare

Ta-dah!! Of course, I'm completely leaving out of the magic trick all committee work and work on the promotion application, but I feel I should celebrate the fact that I got all the papers marked and still had time to eat my lunch. That, my friends, is worthy of party streamers and applause.

I did, however, temporarily take leave of my senses and volunteered for not one but two sub-committees of Academic Standing--but one is a continuation of a sub-committee I was on last year, so I want to keep working on that project (a reconsideration of the UW policy and its impact on students), and the other should be a relatively simple matter to handle (or so I think at the moment, but academics do have a positive gift for complicating the hell out of even the most straight-forward of tasks). So, yay! More committee work! Woo-hoo! (Cancel the party streamers, please, and return the helium balloons.)

Speaking of balloons, classes today were not quite of the lead variety but close, especially the earlier session. It comes down to the fact that, despite everything I've done to try to make the class more "user friendly," as it were, and to engage the students in the process, it's still a process and a very difficult one. I spent a good amount of time talking down the same student who was so discouraged last go-round, once again explaining to him why simply throwing the whole thing out and starting over was probably not a great idea. The half of the buddy pair who had been missing was back, which was lovely: I'm glad I haven't lost him--especially because he's one of the smartest and best writers in the crew. But the actual class process was pretty ragged--largely because of that frustration factor, I think. I even showed them Taylor Mali's "The the Impotence of Proofreading," and I don't know if anyone so much as smiled. Well, I helped as much as I could, and several of them toddled off to go immediately to the Writing Center. Good.

The second class was better--starting with the fact that they laughed out loud at Taylor Mali (well, yeah: it's funny, guys!). I got a little bogged down trying to help two of the better students, because we were dealing with more sophisticated level problems, but I think I spoke to everyone at least once.

In each class, a students showed up with a second version hard-copy, having just uploaded to Turnitin. Sorry: too late. In each class, at least one student had at best an extremely sketchy paper to work on as a "second" version. Can't help you much there. See me in my office hours, send me e-mails--and use the Writing Center.

It's just hard. I keep coming back to that. This is a hurdle I simply can't lower for them: writing a good college-level paper is hard. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of thought. And I can't make that easier. The only thing that makes it easier is lots of practice, perseverance. Some of them, I hate to say, simply are not up to the task, for whatever reasons.

Well, there it is. C'est la guerre.

The office is a chaotic mess. I have to be back tomorrow to meet with my fellow panelists to get some ideas pulled together for the conference next month (maybe I need to come up with some ideas before I see them?) I'll talk to Paul, too--nice to look forward to that--and if I can, around life-maintenance stuff, I'll maybe chunk away at the promotion application a bit. In fact, maybe I'll do a little right now, as I still have a little mania to burn off. But I can feel the wall fast approaching--and the weekend can't get here soon enough.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

the drumroll continues...

The "trick" isn't completed yet: no clue yet whether I'll get out of the predicament and land safely or crash. Tomorrow will tell. I've been interrupted so many times today, I honestly still don't know how long it takes me to mark each paper--and as usual, we're talking about an average, as the bad papers obviously take longer than the good ones. I am aware that, paying attention to sentence-level stuff, it's harder to point out positives, though I suppose I should try more consciously to do that. Next time: even though I'm not finished, it's a bit late in the process to try to change my methods for this round.

Three papers did show up today, so that brought the grand total to seven submitted for the earlier class and nine for the later one. Recall that the later session has fewer students, so statistically, they're doing better, at least in terms of actually submitting work.

I realize that tomorrow I'm going to have to talk to them about being college students. Reminders: You can't pass unless you turn in your work. Requirements are just that: requirements, whether you "like" them or not. It's your job to follow the schedule of assignments. You can't do extra credit or "catch up."

If you're not on the ball right now, you're pretty much fucked.

In the first class, there's another student currently AWOL--and again, he's been one of the best students until he suddenly disappeared. One of his good buddies is in the class and is still coming, and I understand that this young man is not ill; his friend said that it isn't his place to explain what's up--true--but I am concerned. If the AWOL buddy is not in class tomorrow, I'll reach out via e-mail, see if I can reel him back in. My formerly AWOL student talked to me after class yesterday and told me that the amount of work he's missed is making him feel sick and he wants to simply take a zero for the first paper. His choice. I'm not telling him yet, but if he sticks it out the rest of the semester and turns in all his work, doing a good job with all of it, I'll talk to him at the end about an incomplete.

In any event, if both those young men stick with the class, my current guess is that those two plus the seven who submitted papers will be it for the rest of the semester. The only other student I really wanted to keep is very ill, so I think she'll end up disappearing entirely this semester. The rest? Seriously problematic.

And in the second class, one of the people who turned in a paper--a young man who has not been able to get with the program or read any instructions, apparently--probably won't make it. There's also a young woman who has been struggling to get to class on time and who has missed a fair amount of work: I'm very concerned about her, even though she's very sweet and earnest and wants to try hard. But mostly, the ones who turned in papers are the ones I expect to stick; the rest, I expect to lose, for one reason or another.

So, all in all, I'm hoping I can end up with about eight or nine students in each class. That's distinctly less than what I'd hoped for--but if I do end up with those numbers, that will represent better retention, less attrition, than usual in my classes. It's way way way too early to make any predictions--the attrition could continue beyond what I see at the moment--so I'm calling on all the classroom gods to help me keep those bodies in the room.

I think I may have lost another student from Fiction Writing--and I think she may be disappearing because she was too sensitive to the critiques, took things way too personally. I hope she returns (and I may send her an e-mail now, rather than waiting to see if her absences continue), mostly because I think it would be good for her to learn how to set up some methods for dealing with critique without being so hurt. But the rest of the students are apparently having a grand time--and to my delight, they actually (mostly) really liked Le Guin's "Malheur County." One young man mentioned that he might have gotten more out of it because of what I suggested they look for in the story, and I pounced on that: yes, how we read can make quite a difference in how we experience what we read. But I'm simply thrilled they were captured by the story.

I had to have a brief chat with the Pseudo-Brit after class, too: somehow, I didn't get his revised story and revision report (even though he says he left them for me last Thursday), so we needed to make an arrangement for me to get all that--but I also wanted to talk to him about his critiques. His remarks could sound very "teachery" and decidedly condescending (as I may have mentioned), so I had to gently let him know that others might not respond well to that tone and that perhaps he should not tell them what to do. I did mention that one of his classmates was hurt--the young woman mentioned above, though she was hurt more by other comments--but the main thing was I want him to rein it in. He may indeed have more experience and knowledge than the others in the class, but (I know all too well), arrogance doesn't tend to win people over much.

The final note of the day, I met with the student who called yesterday to complain about her professor. Mostly, as I suspected, she needed to vent and to feel she was standing up for her rights--but in fact, her grade is not in jeopardy because of the faculty member's (possibly) faulty record keeping, so pretty much I told her to let it go unless it does become a problem. She said, "He can't mark me late if I'm not late." Actually, yeah, he can. He can call you Maria Natasha de Rocheford Smith, if he wants to, and there isn't anything anyone can do about it--and certainly nothing anyone will do about it, unless it becomes an issue in terms of your final grade. Other than that, much greater injustices will occur in your life, so this one? Let it go. Really. What a huge flap about nothing--but I think she simply has a sense that she has to be battle-ready at all times or she's likely to experience real injustice. And she may not be wrong about that. But what an exhausting way to go through life

And once again I'm in the position of having to get up very early tomorrow morning and hope like hell I can get through the remaining papers I have to grade (eight of them). I truly cannot face another one tonight. But I will leave you with this thought-provoking assertion from a student paper: "Students often cannot turn to their parents or pees for college insight." Oh, how true.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

suspenseful drum-roll

I feel like I'm trying to do a Houdini-esque escape from some impossible tangle of chains and ropes, dangling from a great height--but no, I'm just trying to stay on top of the week. Consequently, I have very mixed feelings about the fact that a fair number of students from the earlier 101 class were conspicuously absent today, and not all those who were there had their papers. The second section was in marginally better shape, but, well, yikes and hooray.

Of course, part of the suspense is that I don't know how many of those missing papers might show up tomorrow--or not (suspense either way). I have completely forgotten whether this version is any faster to mark than the first versions: I suspect maybe so (or maybe I just frantically hope so), as my focus is on sentence-level stuff, which requires less commentary and fewer prompting questions, but the students certainly need to engage in further revision, so I sort of don't know that to plan in terms of time expenditure.

I'm looking at my calendar and wondering how it gets so filled up so fast: between meetings, reminders, and life-maintenance, virtually every single day has something on it for the next three months--and there are plenty of things that probably should be there but aren't. When will I review the sabbatical applications between now and Tuesday's P&B meeting? When will I work on my promotion application? When will I do anything having anything to do with Assessment (which meets next week)? How much shuffling of stuff can I possibly do? And how many more things will I have to shoe-horn into the schedule?

As a very small example of the latter, I got a call today from an evening student who is furious with her professor and needs to come in and complain. (Maybe I should simply point her to that little button in the corner of my blog-post screen: one of these days I do have to click on that to see what it does.) I don't know yet who the professor is, but the student sure needed to vent: I was simply trying to set up the appointment and she kept launching into her tirade about how she's always there, always on time, and he's telling her that her attendance is in trouble, but she's a grown up, she's 34, she's not a child.... Oh, lord help. I'll meet with her tomorrow (even though it's not officially one of my evening office hour nights), hear her out, talk to the professor, see what, if anything, I can do--and if I can't figure out what to do, take it to Bruce. I hope the meeting won't take long, but there it is.

On the other hand, the seminar hours committee meeting that's scheduled for tomorrow may be postponed, as the chair of the committee is ill. That buys me a little paper-marking time this week, but if the meeting is rescheduled, I'll pay for it next week, as we'll then meet on a day when I already have to be in early for Assessment.

Oh, yeah, and because of the time I need to grade student papers, I actually had to move an observation from 10 on a Thursday (plenty early enough for me) to 9:30 on a Monday (ick and likewise yuck)--so on that Monday, I'll have to stay in Advisement later than usual to make up the time, which is what I do on the days when Assessment meets. Everything gets pinched. I don't like things pinched. But I'd rather pinch my schedule on a Monday than run out of time to mark papers that I have to return on a Thursday. And that, my friends, is the kind of calculus that takes up far too much of my mental energy.

I did get all the stories read and commented on, and all the homework marked for the short story class (except for two: one student misunderstood what the revision report needs to be and has to get that to me before I can grade her revision--and the Pseudo-Brit has not turned in his revised story, never mind the report, in addition to being absent yesterday). So I'm all set for tomorrow.

But back to today's classes. The class Bruce observed was tiny--only nine students there--and the video I wanted to show screwed up (because of rotten computer/internet connections), so I had to fling that idea out the window and improvise something else. I was amused to note that I let the class out about 12 minutes early--and the video was about 12 minutes long. Pretty proud of myself that it would have timed so well, if only that part had worked. But we had fun, and--wonder of wonders--Bruce was actually alert and interested throughout the class. He's always written up my classes in glowing terms, but in the past, watching him watch the class, one would think he was bored out of his mind (and indeed he may have been). He even told me, at the end, that he found the information interesting, got caught up in what we were talking about. That's extremely gratifying to hear, I confess, especially considering the source. And the students did me proud: they were engaged, interested, making good points, clearly were prepared--and we had fun. It's great when it all works--and when it works in front of an "audience," even better.

The second class also went well, though at first, it looked like there might only be five people there (just about everyone turned up before the end). I've lost one student because he didn't submit his immunization records--but he was going down the drain anyway, so I'll be just as pleased if he doesn't come back. One student was poised to do well and has suddenly vanished: I sent her an e-mail urging her to contact me, but I think she got overwhelmed by life stuff. It's a shame, but it does happen. The rest of them are pulling together very nicely into a cohesive group, and--as usual with them--the conversation was wide-ranging and lively.

I did show them the video (and the class ended just about on the dot of on time), but I'm not sure it was all that much worth showing. I spent a fair amount of time this morning looking for good videos to show and didn't find much that hit where I wanted it to; maybe I'll look again to see if I can find something for next week. But not for Thursday, I don't think--unless there is a miracle, and all the chains and ropes disentangle and leave me standing safely on the pavement with a stack of marked papers ready to return well in advance of Thursday's classes.

It's chilly as hell in this office, and I'm starting to shiver--which indicates not only that autumn is creeping up on us but that I'm very tired and need to get the hell home. So, off I go.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The usual calculated risk

Officially, I should be here until 7 tonight, for my evening office hour, but I am already ready to sign off on today and leave everything else in a steaming pile on my desk until tomorrow. I had to stay to talk to my ESL "conversation partner," but that feels like more than enough for one day. I don't have a meeting prior to P&B, thank God, but still, I'm taking a risk that I'll be able to evaluate the revised stories for the Fiction Writing class (plus their critiques of their classmates' stories): if I don't get it done tomorrow, it won't get done until next week--and I really would like to return everything to them so I have the decks clear for the next round of 101 papers, which will arrive tomorrow.

I'm sort of having fun, knowing that I've got the computers and internet connections available in both 101 classrooms: I'm going to see if I can find any fun, brief videos to show tomorrow on any of the ideas that have come up in the readings so far (environmentally friendly zoning, permaculture, "Transition Towns" (a term I'd never heard before: love it when I learn something new, too), community-supported agriculture...). I'm going to look into information about local agriculture (there are more working farms around here than students likely realize). Anything I can find for fun visuals and ideas to augment the discussion tomorrow, I'll trot out as needed to keep things lively. I want to keep the students--and Bruce--engaged, after all.

I truly am awash in a sea of paper at the moment--and will be for the foreseeable future. Student assignments, promotion folder, committee crapola: it's all mounting up. And writing that, I just remembered: I have to start reviewing sabbatical applications as of tomorrow. Fortunately, I already reviewed two of my three mentees, but there will be at least three other applications, plus the third I'm supposed to be keeping an eye on, all of which need to be reviewed by next week's P&B. Part of my brain immediately says, "Well, then, you should stay here and do more work before you go." Another internal voice answers, "Nooooooo! I want to go Hooooooome!!" God, I feel like a cranky toddler half the time.

I actually had this post half composed when the phone rang: I had sent an e-mail to my ESL conversation partner; we're supposed to meet Mondays at 5:30, but since I hadn't heard from him, I thought he wasn't going to come today. He was calling from his ESL teacher's office (she also administrates the conversation partner program), and once we sorted things out, I realized he did want to meet today. However, he thought I was going to head over to the building where the language immersion program is housed, and meet him there. No. I told him to come here. I was a little concerned about whether he actually understood what I was saying--not just because of the usual difficulties of making certain of communication when one person is talking in a language in which he or she is not entirely comfortable but also because he may be on the autism spectrum. His teacher did give me a heads up about that, which I appreciate--and I agree with her assessment. I must say, whatever it is, it adds a very interesting additional layer of challenge to the conversations. He did say something in our conversation that indicates he's also had to work to overcome a stammer: that's courage and determination, to work on learning a second language while overcoming a stammer and working on an innate difficult with social interactions. I'm not quite sure how this is all going to work out, but it will be interesting to see.

Class today went well--though, as usual, we finished up about 20 minutes early, despite doing some additional work on freewrites. I rather liked the exercise: since we all have an innate tendency to head for a particular voice--especially to head either for high drama or for humor--after we all talked about the initial freewrite, we all used the same opening sentences and took it the opposite direction: those who usually go for drama had to go for humor, and vice versa. In addition to wanting to get their stories evaluated to return to them on Wednesday, I also hope to look at their exercises in voice: maybe I can use something there as the basis for a little workshop sort of action on Wednesday. I did ask our departmental tech person if we can get the room set up so I can type stuff up and project it so we can all see things in real time (easier than trying to make photocopies all the damned time). I'm improvising here, but so far it all feels like it's working pretty well.

Ah, hell. Thinking about everything I want to do, I'm now thinking that perhaps I should stay for a while longer, try to get a little more work done. I'll at least look at the next story in the stack, and if I can actually see it and make sense of it in any substantive way, I'll see how far I can get. But if I look at it and it might as well be written in Sanskrit, I'll go ahead and fold my tents for the night, taking the Scarlett O'Hara approach, as is my wont.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Battered but better

It may have been evident from yesterday's post, but I was in a very dark place--so dark, in fact, that I couldn't even bear to talk to Paul in our first scheduled "let's talk pedagogy" conversation: I had to ask for a rain-check until Friday. I have some theories about why I was so deeply distressed by the fact that students weren't turning in work, but the main thing is that the black shadow has passed. The missing papers didn't suddenly materialize on time, but when I spoke to the students who were in class today without papers, I explained to them the situation--zero for revision on the first paper but they still can get the final product grade--and they were surprisingly chipper about the whole thing. I did make a point of being as positive as I could be about the bad news and encouraged them to do everything possible to make sure that final version is as brilliant as it can be, but still, they seemed grateful, not grumpy, which was a refreshing surprise.

That was the situation in the first session; in the session, everyone who was there had at least turned in something, even if it was more of a rough draft than a finished version. And in both classes, the students were (mostly) very willing to look carefully at my comments and seemed to feel they know how to address those comments and come up with a better paper as a consequence.

So, that's a mood lifter.

I am, however, beat to shit: I got up at six, but it should have been 5:30, as I didn't have all the papers marked before the start of the second session. The last few students got pretty sixteenth-assed comments, but they got something--and they don't know what they didn't get, so they were happy enough. All the students were also willing to have the class be a little bumpy to start, as I tried to get them rolling while still finishing up grading the last few papers. Everyone in both sessions could tell that I'm hammered with exhaustion and consequently even more addled and absent-minded than usual, but enh. It worked well enough.

I'm also happy that I won't have to read the riot act on Tuesday when Bruce is there to observe. I had thought I might be in that position and was trying to figure out how to make that work both in terms of the observation and in terms of getting through to the students, but since he'll observe only the first session, and since I already talked to the students I was concerned about, we can just launch into the discussion planned for the day and off we go.

I grant you, there are still a few students who have not turned in anything--and don't seem likely to. But even though I'm deeply concerned about attrition (witness my dream of a while back), those particular students I'm just as happy to let go. They're not adding anything of value to the class anyway, so, well, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

I always love the days when I get to just circulate around the room, giving advice and encouragement to the students as they work on their papers--they're so earnest about figuring out what to do, and I can feel actual learning going on--but today was particularly nice, even though I was in near zombie mode. One student said he was completely discouraged and wanted to just start all over, and I said no, in fact, that's a mistake, because then you'll just make the same kinds of errors all over again. Instead, keep what's good--and there's plenty that's good in every paper in the room. When I sat down with that particular student, the first thing I said to him is, "So, tell me what's good in your paper." And he did. Ah! There you go: you're right. So build on that. And at the end of that class, one student asked, "Are we going to do this process with every paper?" "Yep." "So we won't ever just write a paper, turn it in, and that's it?" "Nope." "Awesome!" I wasn't sure if he was being sarcastic, but no: he really meant it--and several other students in the class chimed in to agree. "We never got to do this in high school, but this is how we'll learn." Yeah, well, that's the general idea. Thanks for noticing. (And no, I'm not being sarcastic either: I'm delighted that they're aware that the process is designed to actually help them learn.)

Now, however, all I want to do is indulge my body with a drink and dinner, and then collapse utterly. To hell with tomorrow: next week is another week--one of only eleven more to go.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The bloodbath begins

Ah, Christ, I hate this.

Missing papers. Missing submissions to Turnitin. Late papers and submissions. Potentially good students AWOL. And I'm hitting the wall.

Mistake after mistake today. I should not have gone to Advisement. This is what I get for being the good girl. I managed to get about 2 1/2 papers graded in the three hours I was there: too many distractions (including a lot of loud talk among the professional advisers) and lots of little stuff getting in my way. Among other things, I realized that the rubric form I was all set to use has some things on it that either apply only to 102 or don't use the new terminologies I've come up with, so although I could at least check off the rubric boxes, I couldn't write out comments--as I'd just have had to rewrite them on the corrected form.

I didn't bring lunch but grabbed something quick from the little campus food shop (and I use the word "food" loosely). So I got deeply hungry a little bit ago, and ate some crap out of the vending machine, trying to keep myself going--but I'm crashing big time.

I realize that, even though it's early, I truly cannot, simply cannot, focus well enough to mark even one more paper today. I may end up getting up at 5:30--certainly will get up by 6 at the latest--to try to crank out the remainder, but it's a hell of a gamble: I still have 13 to go, which means trying to get through three in an hour (plus a bit) when usually two is the best I can do. And I'm allowing one student to at least try to turn in a paper by 11 tomorrow morning. I think I'll be OK on that one: somehow, much as I hope she does make it, I don't think she will.

And I have to decide whether to tell a few students that truly, mathematically, they stand virtually no chance of passing at this point. And then the attrition starts.

Christ, I hate this.

OK, good notes, good notes:

The meeting today was very helpful. I think I have a much better sense of something somewhat tangible that I can bring to next week's meeting of the "seminar hours" committee. Another member of the seminar hours group and I met with colleagues from the Center for Educational and Retention Counseling--and they were very grateful that we reached out to them, want to work with them. They had some good ideas and helped us kick things around enough that things started to take shape in my own mind at least. That was great.

And I had told Cathy that I'd help her by reading 20 "move up" essays: students who are in remedial English but who seem not to need a full semester of remediation have the option of doing essentially a re-placement exam half-way through the semester and potentially getting moved into a section of 101 that meets half the term (but for twice as long each meeting). It's a good thing all around, but I sure as shit didn't need to put my own paper grading aside to read those essays. Turned out I didn't need to, so that's a very good thing.

And class was good. I've decided that we're going to meet in the little conference room here in Bradley from now on: more intimate, nicer--and I can make copies of exercises or free-writes for us to do sort of mini-workshops on. I decided--as the words were coming out of my mouth, basically--to keep the readings, exactly as originally intended: read, do notes, we discuss. But if/when the discussion falls flat, I can now ask students to volunteer something very rough for us to talk about as a process looking at the very early stages of idea formation--and I can trot downstairs to make copies for everyone, so we all have something to look at as we "workshop." I hope it will work: it certainly will be a grand experiment. We actually had a pretty good little discussion about revision as a process, and--setting them up for their next stories already--we started talking about point of view and voice. So that was great.

And now, I am going to go feed myself and try to get into bed as early as humanly possible--and pray for yet another miracle tomorrow, so I can get all the rest of those papers marked before each class. Light a candle for me or something, please.