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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stick a fork in me...

... I'm done.

There is, of course, a rather large stack of student assignments on my desk that I really should tend to before I leave, as a) I will need to have it all done by Tuesday and 2) I won't have much time to speak of on either Monday or Tuesday in which to deal with it. (Monday: the zoo that is Advisement these days; Tuesday, beginning adjunct scheduling for the spring semester.) I get the first versions of final papers from the 101 students on Tuesday, so--even with the drastically reduced number of students in both classes--it will be important for me to walk into those classes with the decks clear.

And yet, I cannot face them tonight. I did--praises be--find the mental energy to write up the observation for my colleague, which puts a period on that part of my P&B duties for the semester and crosses something off the "to do before it spontaneously combusts" list. And at the moment, I'm trying very hard not to look at my calendar for December and not to think about all the "shoulds" that are piling up, demanding my attention in the next three weeks. I have five days to get over the tail end of this wretched cold (which is still lingering, dammit all to hell) and to have a mental re-set so I can face the end of days with some measure of calm and clarity.

P&B was relatively fascinating today, as we got a little peek into the workings of the administration and the Board of Trustees: not a pretty sight at all, I assure you, but we still found ways to laugh about it all (because, really, what else can you do). My favorite was the term "Vice President of Turds," closely seconded by an administrator's job description being "head of looking out of windows." I don't suppose it's necessary to stand up in a BOT meeting and say, loudly, "You know, the utter disgust and disdain you feel for us is reciprocated in equal measure." I'm a person who always wants to find a way to some kind of common ground, some point at which people can at least begin to engage in that beautiful, archaic thing called "conversation" or "discussion," but with the current powers that be, I simply don't think it's possible.

I'm stating right now my own vote of no confidence--in any of them. "Them" being a proper noun that refers collectively to the entire administration and the board--and may well also include the entire governance structure of the whole state university system.

Argh. Well. Moving on.

Classes went OK. A few students were checking out in the back of the first section (and those who were tend to do that all the time anyway--and I always call attention to it: "So-and-So is so bored he's asleep"), but generally we had a reasonable discussion. I liked it when I asked them to tell me what they think the main differences are between their generation and mine, and the primary one was that they felt my generation has better interpersonal skills in terms of face-to-face (or even just voice-to-voice) communication. One student used his own family's typical Thanksgiving scenario as an illustrative case: the younger generations are in the basement playing video games or watching whatever (not even all the same thing), while the older generations are upstairs in the living room, talking and laughing. And the students said they envy us that: they wish they had more of it, and they think our culture now discourages it. Of course I agree, but I was touched by their sincerity about it. I could hear a longing in their voices for that ability--and I wish I knew how to help them acquire it. It may be awfully late in the game for them to learn it; after all, I know how to have a conversation because that's what people did around me as I was growing up. Even with my friends when I was little: perhaps we didn't actually have conversations, but we were playing together, physically: playing let's pretend, playing dress up, exploring outside, making up stories about where we were and what we were doing.

For an unusual twist on the week, the second session was less lively and engaged today. In both classes I showed them my dissertation--which always elicits reactions from the students, usually along the lines of "I could never do that." I always remind them that, when I was a first semester college student, I couldn't have done it either: they're entry level, and I had to work my way up to that, over many (many, many) years. But it also reminds them that writing is a process: I reminded them that I spent four times as long revising the thing as I did drafting it in the first place. In the second session, instead of having a free-form discussion, as I had done with the earlier session, instead we spent some time plugging search terms into the databases, seeing what might pop up, refining search terms. I told them again, like a mantra: "Research is circular, repetitive, and frustrating. You simply have to resign yourself to the fact that that's what it's like. It's like cleaning the bathroom: it is never fun, it's always the same thing, it has to be done over and over--but it does have to be done."

A favorite moment from the second session was when one of the bright lights in the class asked if I could take a sort of shaky student thesis statement and turn it into a really good one, as he still wasn't sure he knew how to do that. I said that yes, of course I could, but whether I could do it on the fly would be a different issue: I'd have to work through the entire paper, then pull out the thesis from what I see in the body of the essay. Teaching opportunity: and that's what you need to do, students. Write your paper: often what should be your thesis is actually in your conclusion. So move that to the front of your papers--but then you have to track back through the body to make sure it all lines up with that new thesis. We start with a tentative thesis, but we have to write our way into the real one--and that means we have to be willing to change the paper to reflect the real thesis, not just in the introductory paragraph but all the way through.

And another favorite moment was when my most brilliant but most quiet and retiring student spoke up toward the end of class. I said, "Anything else I can do to help you out right now?"--and usually students take that as code for "pack your bags and leave," but she spoke up and wanted to discuss her two potential thesis statements. Earlier, the Young Activist had read aloud two possible thesis statements, and the class immediately identified that the second one was the better--and shy diamond went a hair further and said, "because it says why." Perfect! And when Shy Diamond read both her possible theses, they were getting at a similar underlying problem but from two different approaches--and either would be wonderful. Teaching moment: this is when you let the research guide you. If you can find good information on one topic and not so much on the other, opt for the one that offers the most support.

So--apart from that pile of student work on my desk (what pile? I don't see any pile) and apart from ll the committee work I still need to tend to (committees? Qu'est que c'est?)--I'd call it a good day. And I'll call it a good week, too. I have my work cut out for me on Monday and Tuesday--but that's then. This is now. And I, my friends, am outta here.

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