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Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing for students

After spending a number of days reading material to get the "facts" straight in my mind, I decided that today, I needed to take a break from reading and start some writing. I also took a deep, steadying breath and looked at the schedule I submitted with the sabbatical application. Of course, I've not been following it at all: not only have I spent the month mostly enjoying the fact that I'm not having to strap on my body armor and head back into the classroom, I also have been working on the fun bits of my project, instead of starting with the more dry and creaky parts. That's not to say that what I've been working on isn't important: it's crucial to the end result and may, in fact, be more important than the dry and creaky stuff. But one of the things I have to do is to actually be a scholar for a bit: I have to find and read a lot of criticism, make an annotated bibliography of it, and provide students with a slightly pre-digested overview of it.

The stiff stuff arises from my strong sense that students need to be introduced to critical material--and the sooner the better--but that's in conflict with my awareness that the critical material has been written by scholars for scholars, and as such, most of it sails way over students' heads (or at least the heads of the students I'm writing for). I need to acknowledge that for the students, but I also think it's important to point them toward critical ideas they can grasp--and toward the most digestible of the critical essays that are out there.

But it's stiff and creaky partly because it's old territory for me: I've been wading through the criticism with students for years now, or at least the little bits of it that are available through our campus's databases. I also know there's a lot more out there that isn't on those particular databases--largely because it's old and may well be pretty outdated, but it still deserves mention. But that means I have to track it down. I'll do as much as I can online, of course, but I suspect there will come a time when I have to make a trip to the New York Public Library's research branch ("the library with the lions" as I used to tell my students) and wade through the stuff that hasn't been digitized yet.

And I don't work well in libraries. I know that's weird for someone in my profession, but I've never been able to concentrate very well in a library: working in a library feels like trying to dance in a straight jacket to me. Strange, but there it is. And even so, I almost certainly will have to put on the straight jacket and dance as well as I can.

I'm interested to note, too, that when I'm writing, I don't hit the wall as quickly as I do when I'm reading and taking notes. I did have to take a sizable break this afternoon: I tried to simply switch from the sabbatical project to doing some of the reading for the psych course, but my brain simply wasn't going to go there. Instead, I played a few rounds of dopey "match three" computer games and then walked to the grocery store to pick up some supplies for dinner. As I was walking, I started thinking about a completely different section of the sabbatical project that I wanted to work on--and I've just spent about three hours doing that, forgetting completely my decision to set a timer so I'd have to get up and move at least a little every 40 minutes or so. I'm about to get up and move around now--and when I was writing earlier, I moved the computer to the living room table so I could work standing up--but I really do have to be diligent about making myself get up and move or I'll end up frozen in seated position, unable to straighten out.

But getting back to work after my break felt good--and I'm glad I could do it. I was afraid I'd take the break and then be done for the day. I've also been getting started later than I want, my sleep schedule skewed toward a late to bed, late to rise pattern, so, much as I hate the prospect, I think I am going to have to set an alarm for a while, so I can force my body into an earlier pattern--and, I hope, with an earlier wake-up time, I'll have more hours of work in me before my brain splats against the wall and I have to quit for the day.

I'll admit it: this is fun. It isn't easy, but it's fun. I'm having a blast.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Long silence, followed by marginal panic

I have been working on my sabbatical project--sorta kinda, and not for very long stints in any one day--but I confess that mostly I've been spending time on personal pursuits and enjoying myself in other ways. Now that the primary distraction is no longer available, I'm feeling waves of anxiety about how far behind I am on the time-table I put together for the sabbatical application, and about the fact that even the part I'm embarked on seems to be taking much longer than I anticipated. Part of the reason it's taking longer is that I'm not relying on memory but am going back to the source material and taking clear notes, so I can talk about this portion of the project more clearly and precisely.

I'm aware that I'm still being mysterious and vague about the project itself--because I don't want anyone to raid my idea and beat me to the punch (or to potential publication). I really doubt that anyone reading this blog would think, "Oh, hey, cool idea: I bet I can do that better, faster, and leave Prof. TLP in the dust"--but I'm possessive of my project, so until it's found some final form--either as the book I most hope for or an online publication of some sort--I'll continue to be vague in what I say about it.

I know that talking about the sabbatical isn't talking about teaching per se, but it does have direct application to my work with my students--and it does require that I continually keep the student mind in mind, if you will: I tell my students to remember their audience, and the same applies to me in this case. I have to remember my audience, the students for whom the end product is intended. My tendency is to provide too much information in too dense a fashion, so I have to be on guard against that as I put this thing together. It's good practice for me anyway: maybe I can also figure out how to make my assignments more clear, precise, and comprehensible too.

I continue to think about how I want to attack my classes in the fall--yes, even now, this far in advance. I haven't given a lot of thought to the MDC course that I've been offered; I have some ideas about it, but I haven't gotten serious about looking for readings, figuring out assignments, that sort of thing. The current plan is to get to that late in the spring--about when I'd normally be sending things to be printed in bulk. I do have to remember that many of the MDC students probably can't write a paper (certainly not up to my standards), so I want to find other means of measuring what they know and don't know. And I realize, writing that sentence, that the first thing I need to do is to figure out what exactly I want them to know or understand by the end of the semester. That's still a bit vague.

Seems like things are vague all around.

On the other hand, I'm also embarked once again on being a student: I did manage to get enrolled in the master's level psych course I wanted to take, and the first class meeting was last night. I was both appalled and amused to hear the professor say a lot of the things I say to my students, especially about cutting and pasting information from others' work into their own ("I can tell when you've done that") and the importance of doing the reading prior to class. I felt a little shabby that first class meeting, as there was an e-mail address snafu which meant that I didn't get the information about the first reading, which should have been done prior to last night's class meeting: oops. But I also can say that a lot of the information was covered in the undergrad psych course I took a few summers ago, so I wasn't utterly lost. However, I can also say that if I am every quizzed on the parts of the human brain, the names of the various structures and what's responsible for what, I'd flunk unless I could refer to the book. It simply doesn't stick for me somehow, so I'm going to have to spend a fair amount of time either engaged in rote memorization or figuring out handy mnemonic devices. The professor did reassure us that we don't need to memorize it all (thank god), but it is important information, and I dislike the feeling of having to relearn it new every time I come across it.

Still, I'm delighted to be in the class--and it will cover an interesting variety of topics. The purpose of the course is for the students to hear from a number of specialists in different areas talking about their thing, which is mighty nifty. The overall focus is largely on neuroscience, it seems, which indicates to me an interesting shift in how psychology as a field is viewed: as we get a better sense of the actual systems and processes, clinical practice is bound to change. Pretty cool beans.

I suspect that, this semester, blog posts will be more sporadic than they are when I'm teaching--and that they'll often focus on my experiences as a student rather than on my sabbatical work. But it's all pretty wonderful--and it doesn't feel like drudgery: it feels like a very serious and intense form of play. I could get a little too used to this, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Gawd...

Way too exhausted for much of a post today. I have a very sore throat (probably a cold coming on, what fun)--and the scheduling today was a nightmare. We took a vote not to come in tomorrow but to give ourselves the day off and return for the final double-check on Thursday. I have a feeling we may uncover lots of howling errors--but maybe we'll also find a few brilliant solutions: hope springs eternal. The big problem is the new ENG100 course, which Bruce has pre-assigned and which often conflicts with any other courses we can assign to fill someone's schedule. It seems very clear that Bruce was trying to juggle way too many variables in putting together the schedules for the 100s, and the domino effect is horrific.

But it's only schedules: we're not talking bodily harm here, or unemployment, or anything else that's dire.

My plan now is to go home, eat something, and sleep as much as I possibly can between now and Thursday afternoon when we re-convene.

Stick a fork in me.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Little blog blip

I'm in my office, doing a little transitioning from a day of scheduling (oy) to a meeting with a "substitute" cat sitter who was wretchedly irresponsible and needs to be very firmly taken to task. She wasn't one of my students, but the impending confrontation with her feels very like interactions I've had with students in the past--although I don't need to maintain the same level of professional composure. I won't get into the whole saga now, but she's 19 and possibly has a substance abuse problem, on top of a very clear lack of any sense of responsibility: she needs to have one of those very painful lessons in what is expected of a person as a grown-up.

And I'm going to be in the position of asking other colleagues if they have students they would recommend for the occasional cat-sitting gig, as my wonderful, amazing former student who has been my cat sitter for the past few years is moving on to grad school and probably won't be in the area much longer.

However, what I want to process now is more professional than personal. Two things.

1: I had a rather odd epiphany yesterday. I told a friend about a weird experience from last semester's 101 students (in the earlier section, of course). They had never heard the term "ratchet" except in a slang/street meaning that I'd never encountered before--and when they read the word in not one but two articles, both times used in the phrase "ratchet up" (as in to increase), they were utterly confused. It didn't dawn on them that there might be a different meaning to the word: they assumed that there was some arcane connection they were supposed to make between the meaning they knew and the context in which it clearly didn't fit. It's hard to put this in words, but essentially, their assumption was that, since it didn't make sense, the problem was that they were missing some complex underlying meaning of the entire point in the article, not simply that a word might have more than one meaning. And that led me to realize that they apparently assume that they will be confused in any class they take--and that they will be powerless to find their way out of their confusion: only the teacher will be able to show them what they're missing, and it will invariably be something utterly arcane and beyond their grasp.

That in turn led me to remember the argument I had with a student many years ago: he was utterly furious with me that I wouldn't simply hand him an understanding of something he'd read. When I said that he needed to figure it out, he said, "But you're supposed to teach me." I explained that handing him the answer wasn't teaching him, but he clearly was firmly convinced that I was simply shirking my clear responsibility as an instructor. The student attitude seems to be A) for any question, there is one simple and clear answer, B) the teacher has the answer, and C) if students can't immediately see the answer on their own, they have no other recourse but to get the "right" answer from the teacher.

That whole way of thinking has been inculcated in them in all their prior education--and it is completely antithetical to how we as professors see things. They view their own understanding of what education is as absolute and inarguable: questions have answers, which teachers must provide. And I view my understanding of education as equally absolute and inarguable: A) many questions--especially the ones worth asking--don't have simple, clear answers, and may, in fact, lead to further and further questions without ever reaching a specific "answer" at all, B) the only "authority" for whether any answer is "correct" or not is the strength and validity of the support that underlies the answer, and C) the main objective of education is not, as students think, to provide them with answers but rather to teach them how to find their own answers, how to understand the reasons for their answers, and how to continually question their own answers to see if there might be even more room for thought or understanding beyond what is visible at first glance.

I imagine I've known all this for some while, on some deep, intuitive level, but this is the first time it's been so clear to me. I still haven't quite got it into words: I'm looking for the perfect, pithy analogy that will convey the difference between the two ways of viewing education so students have their own epiphany about what is supposed to happen in the learning process. I hope Paul can help: I want to bat this around with him for a while to see if we can figure out a way to get it across to our students. I'm actually very excited to have had the epiphany; now I just have to figure out how to get it into my pedagogy.

The second thing I wanted to mention is much less interesting, briefer, and not anywhere near as positive, but having just spent several hours working on scheduling, I must say that a large number of my colleagues are idiots who seem incapable of filling out a simple form. It didn't feel like we got very far today, but part of today was spent trying to get some kind of sense out of a colleague who is in charge of one of the interdisciplinary programs: we needed to know if any English faculty had been assigned to that program's courses for next fall, and all she wanted to do was complain about her own schedule--and to tell us that the courses that are on the books are wrong and she doesn't know who will be teaching them yet. I didn't strangle her, but it was a close thing.

Now, however, I have to dash off to scold the cat-sitter. I expect I may post again tomorrow, too; somehow it feels wrong to be in the office and not do that.