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Thursday, June 18, 2015

A "full lid"

That's what C.J. Cregg says when she finishes the last press briefing of the day on The West Wing (which I'm watching on DVD, having missed it back when it was on the air), so I assume the saying applies here, at least metaphorically speaking. I also feel a little like MacArthur leaving the Philippines, though I don't get a gun-boat to climb aboard as I depart: I just have that "I shall return" feeling, that this is a temporary retreat, but I'll be back in the trenches soon.

Which is, in fact, true.

I was in a borderline panic this morning, as I spent longer than anticipated trying to get the ASLE panel organized: making sure everyone (or everyone who has responded so far) is OK with the jazz-session jam format I want to try (yes), that we can meet prior to our session to map out how it will work (even improv needs rehearsal), that I get the brief introduction blurb from each panelist (one so far, of five panelists apart from yours truly--oh, but yeah, I should probably create my own). The time spent on that meant I didn't leave the house until after I had intended to be on campus already--huff, huff, trying to get ahead of my mental cattle prods. But as it happened, I'd done enough work yesterday that there really wasn't much to do today. One bonus, in terms of the scheduling, was that one of our colleagues has decided to retire: Bruce was in a panic that we wouldn't get all our courses covered, but what that meant to me was I could give classes to some people who'd been without. And there are very few courses still unassigned. Bruce is worried that we'll need to hire more adjuncts, but my strong bet is that we'll be canceling enough sections and following enough if-then domino chains ensuring that full-time faculty have full course loads that we won't need all the adjuncts we already have in the pool. I always feel dreadful about not being able to offer courses to the adjuncts at the bottom of the stack--especially as many of them are infinitely better instructors than the folks with tons of seniority (the same being true of the full-time faculty, actually)--but we're constrained by issues of seniority. The issue of qualifications does enter into the distribution, too--and that shows in the courses that are unassigned: ESL-dedicated sections of 001; honors comp; the new 100 course, which includes elements of developmental writing in a credit-bearing course and includes an additional 50 minutes dedicated to time in a writing lab--but which also, as a consequence of its hybrid nature, requires specially qualified faculty; and a few electives, including, as I mentioned, the Science Fiction course.

Speaking of which, Bruce is happy to let me have it if my MDC doesn't run--but we need to make sure that there's someone who can take it if my MDC does run (and honestly, I'll be just as happy either way). So, I have a list of three other faculty members who are qualified to teach the course, and I'm contacting them according to Scheduling rules--one at a time, considering the course rotation and the faculty members' seniority--to see if I can get a back-up. I'm sure one of them will take the offer--and the rest we won't know until the Nth hour in August.

As far as the MDC course, the enrollment has just increased: it went from 0 to 1. The 101s hold steady at 0 and 3. The enrollment for Mystery and Detective fiction continues to climb: I'm up to 21 in that one now, and could get as many as 30 (talk about a full lid--or at least a full classroom: I don't think we can fit 30 desks in that room). The 101 classes have traditionally been capped at 24 students (though they've often been overloaded to up to 28); now they're capped at 27. MDC is capped at 34 for fuck's sake.

And Bruce is worried we won't have enough adjuncts. I'm worried we won't have enough courses even for the adjuncts with the most seniority: with those class sizes, we're not going to run anywhere near as many sections of things as we're used to.

Interesting times.

I had intended to spend some time this afternoon continuing to chip away at the piles of files, but I just can't face it right now. (Oh, Scarlett, how I understand the need to wait to be stronger....) I will, however, try to do at least a little triage on the stacks so I can find my place again, as it were, when I return to the office. Officially, I don't have to be back until I pick up work with Bruce on August 17, but I suspect I'll head in before then to get the 101s nailed down. That reminds me that we still haven't gotten official word on reassigned time, which is more than a bit maddening. I'll leave a note for Bruce about that, see if he can poke the right person to get the authorizations official.

On a more fun note--and you know I always try to end on a good note--it's clear that some colleagues who are retiring have cleaned out their bookshelves by putting anything they don't want to keep on the public shelves, and there actually were some fun titles there, which I snagged and have dragged up here to add to my bookshelf clutter. I'll probably take a few home with me, too, as potential summer reading. So many books, so little time....

And on that note, I'm going to do my bit of triage and head off into the evening, start doing things to help calm my pre-travel jitters. (I'm an heirloom peach: I'm not designed to travel well.) There may well still be the occasional blog post between now and August, but I'm certainly not expecting to write any between now and July 25 at the earliest. I could surprise myself (and you), but it seems unlikely. I'll carry work materials with me, just in case (God forbid I should suddenly have the urge to work and not have the right pieces of paper with me), but I truly hope that the only work I do between now and end of July is what's required for the ASLE conference, and that once the conference is over, my brain turns to oatmeal and I begin doing my sea-cucumber impersonations.

Hasta luego.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I'm still here...

I keep thinking I've written the last post for the season, and then I find myself in the office, or at my computer at home, with more work stuff to relate.

I put in a good whack at the adjunct schedules for fall--and kept getting interrupted by colleagues who wanted to ask about the second summer session ("That's up to Bruce now," I kept saying, but then we'd get to talking about enrollment and how fucked up the decisions of the Administration and BOT are...). I stopped when I realized I needed to confer with Bruce--who left for "lunch" at about 1:30 and wasn't back by almost 5, even though his car was still out back. (One of those lunches, said a colleague who came looking for him.) I'd planned to come in to work on schedules tomorrow in any event, so with luck, I'll be able to get to the point where Bruce really does have to take over, because I'm out of courses--or at least out of courses that the remaining adjuncts are qualified to teach.

One interesting moment was when I realized that there is a section of Science Fiction that is as yet unclaimed. I didn't claim it because it meets when my MDC class meets--but I'm going to ask Bruce if we can keep it in reserve for me. That way, if the MDC doesn't run, I can still ditch a 101 for my Advisement hours and only have one comp, plus two electives. Sounds like a little slice of heaven to me.

After I gave up on scheduling, I decided I would dive into the continuing process of cleaning out and organizing files. I got rid of one enormous stack--some of it in the recycling bin, some of it reorganized and refiled--but there are still two good-sized and notably chaotic stacks still to be sorted through. There is also quite a bit still in the file drawers themselves that I probably should at least thin out if not toss entirely--but I'm not sure I can face the mental effort at this point in my life.

However, all those files of things I no longer use are interesting evidence of how much my pedagogy is ever a work in progress. I've tried so many ideas, with varying levels of success: some I've probably given up on too quickly; others probably were never going to work. But I keep seeing things I've tried in the past and thinking, "I wonder if I'd have time to use that again in the fall?" or "That might be helpful; would students look at it if I just made it available and didn't specifically assign it?"

Writing that sentence made me wonder whether I should once again announce that my students are going to be subjects of an experiment: that I'm going to try out some ideas on them to see whether the ideas work. Since one of the functions of Blackboard is that I can track who has opened a link and for how long, or how often, I would be able to tell at a glance if anyone is looking at "recommended but not required" materials. I bet they won't: as an undergraduate, I highly doubt that I would have--and that's not entirely a function of the arrogance of ignorance; it's also a matter of the pressures of time. But I have all this stuff, all these varied approaches to the problems students encounter....

At this point, however, that all goes in the ever-expanding "well, we'll see" file (not to be confused with the "time will tell" file in this case: they really are separate). In addition to all the plates I'm trying to keep spinning here in the office, I also have a handful of things to take home and merge into the files and lists and stuff I have there, adding to the plates spinning at home--and I'm going to have to try to keep all that crockery from smashing to the floor while I'm away or otherwise ignoring the hell out of this place for more than a month. I hate that feeling of having to back-track almost all the way to the beginning of a process in order to remember where I left off, which plate is about to stop spinning and crash.

I'm so tired I can neither sustain nor creatively mix a metaphor. It's time to go home. I have been here since about 11 this morning: that's an 8-hour day, folks. But, you know, educators have summer off....

Speaking of off, however, that's where I am, right now: I'm off. I'm also leaving for the day.

Monday, June 15, 2015

bewildered

I have no clue what I'm doing these days. I know I worked today; I spent some time crafting an e-mail to my co-panelists at the ASLE conference, in part with the usual stuff (will you be using AV equipment, how would you like to be introduced) but also to find out if they'd be OK with actually doing a jam session, not just a bunch of short papers that have been put together by the conference organizers under a very loose panel title. E-mail went out to five co-panelists: two responded; neither responded to all the bits I needed. Not surprising: I'll need to do lots of follow-up this week. And at the moment, my guess is that the format will be the usual boring thing and not the exciting alternative I have in mind. But I'm very willing to be proven wrong.

Yesterday, I spent a lot of time pulling together my last report as the Professional Liaison Coordinator for ASLE, which mostly meant scrolling through a folder of saved e-mails and trying to remember what happened that I need to report on. At first, I didn't think there was anything to say--but I actually do have a report of sorts. But the process also required that I send out a bunch of e-mails, asking people for quick updates--and given the time of year in the academic calendar, I should have done that months ago. Ah well. This is part of why I'm stepping down as PLC: I just don't have the drive to keep on top of it all.

Today I spent some time writing another letter of recommendation for former student and cat-sitter extraordinaire, Naomi, and then started trying to chip through the reworked handouts for the 101 classes (current enrollment: 0 in one section, 3 in the other, 0 in my MDC class, 20 in Mystery and Detective Fiction). I'm really losing track of what I have, what I need--even with my lists of lists. I'm not sure what my work day will be like tomorrow, or if I will work at all, actually, as I have a riding lesson that will gobble up my usual "hour of power" time. Wednesday and Thursday I'm back on campus, starting work on fall adjunct schedules. Friday I'm getting ready to head out of town.

Panic? Me? Pay no attention to the sounds of hyperventilation in the background.

Now, however, I have to engage in a little life maintenance, including getting to the post office before it closes so I can mail Naomi's letter. I'll post again if anything else transpires this week. If not, I reckon I'll be mostly pretty silent until end of July at the earliest, possibly until August. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Migraine

I had a migraine--or at least a pretty bad headache--heading into the BOT meeting on Tuesday. The Board had moved their private, executive session to start earlier, so I hoped that, showing up at 7, I wasn't going to be too late. Hah. We didn't even see them until about 8:30, at which point, they did a brief public session in the back of the room, which we could hear but were not part of (it was still part of their executive agenda, not the actual public session); then they went to the front of the room; we had to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, the chair stated that there was a topic they had to consider in private, and they disappeared again. At about 9:45, they paraded back in--to the front of the room this time--and we stood for the Pledge again (I guess the first time didn't count or something), and then came the time when the Academic Senate Executive Committee (hereafter ASEC) got to address the three big issues on the docket: increase in class size, reduction of requirements for an associate's degree (despite the fact that we just struggled to reach SUNY's mandate for "seamless transfer" requirements and had to cut credits for that: now the Administration wants to cut math requirements even further), and the cut-off scores for exemption from placement testing.

The meeting went until well after 1 a.m.--and Paul, God love him, had to present last, so he was there until the bitter, and I do mean bitter, end. I left at about 10: my headache had risen to such epic proportions I wasn't sure I could see well enough to drive home (though once I was out of the room and in the air, it faded just enough that I could safely get to the diner, eat, and get home).

Ladies and gentlemen, to steal a phrase from G.I. Jane, it was a goat-fuck.

I do wish I'd been there to hear Paul do his thing, as I know he was clear, concise, intelligent, and prepared. I regret to say that one of the first presenters--on class size--was not, although short of getting used to being the target of a knife-throwing act, I'm not entirely sure what preparation would be adequate. The ground of the argument kept shifting, the facts were unclear--and representatives of the administration ... well, I don't want to accuse them of flat out lying, but let's just say that their representations of the facts were decidedly non-factual.

A favorite moment was when one member of the Board felt he needed to agree with the ASEC's position on something--briefly--and said it "pained" him to agree with "you people." He "jokingly" referred to us as "the enemy." He referred to the president of the ASEC as "Miss," rather ignoring the fact that her title is correctly "Doctor" (she holds a doctorate after all)--or at least "Professor." I now have to quote an e-mail from one of my colleagues, regarding this same particular "trustee" (I have to use the word extremely loosely): "This is the same person who told us last week that he doesn't want to set up NCC as a 'paragon' of colleges.  He just wants us to blend into the 'norm.'  In other words, aim low and seek mediocrity.  We will have to put that into our mission statement."

And that was as collegial as it got. The chair of the Board said "this is not a discussion"--when, in fact, the by-laws state that that is precisely what needs to occur. No: the ASEC was given 15 minutes to present their position, the administration was given time to offer a rebuttal, the Board was allowed to ask questions (read "throw brickbats")--and that was it. Moving along.

The upshot is that the Board upheld the college president's veto of the senate resolutions on class size and degree requirements, and the cut-off scores have been kicked back to the Developmental Ed committee for further work (as in, make our decision agree with what the administration wants).

All I can say is that the picture just ain't gonna be pretty for a good long while. I'm not sure what we can do--except continue to gather evidence that the Board is violating our bylaws left, right, and center, and make absolutely sure that Middle States (the association that gives us our accreditation) knows about it and puts us on probation. That's the big fear--and we narrowly averted being put on probation a while ago. I say that's not good enough: yank our accreditation entirely until the entire administration and board have been replaced with human beings.

Meanwhile....

I continue to work on reconfiguring the 101s. That headache, migraine, whatever, actually started on Monday and had gotten bad enough on Tuesday night that it held on all day yesterday and even a little into this morning, so I don't have a lot of intellectual capacity, but I have at least gotten a little work done. I'm now starting to feel some panic about the fact that I'm heading out of town very soon--end of next week--and I feel like all about me are things half-way started that I need to tie off in some way or they'll completely unravel while I'm gone and I'll have to start all over.

I know that isn't precisely true, but in order to alleviate a little of that stress, I am going to send an e-mail to the ASLE conference organizers so I can contact the other members of my panel, talk to them about how I want to run it--and take a look at my own proposal, see how much I have to prepare and how much I can wing it. And from there, we'll see. That may be it for the day. Because, well, you know, tomorrow is another day. Funny how that works.

Monday, June 8, 2015

lists of lists

I have so many layers of work I want to keep track of that I'm almost--though not quite--to the point at which I need to make lists of my lists. There's the list of the pieces I need to create for the reconfigured 101 classes; there's the list of steps I need to take to get everything up and ready to roll on Blackboard; there's the list of grade weights and the order in which assignments need to fall--and at this point, I'm pretty sure that parts of all this are still falling through the cracks. Every semester I promise myself that--before I make a kagillion copies--I will carefully proofread every single handout and cross reference them to make sure the information is consistent, and every semester I renege on my promise, which inevitably, of course, leads to an "oops" moment--or several--as the semester progresses.

I think (emphasis, think) that I managed to sort out the submission stream: when I collect papers, when I hand them back, what students do in class between submitted versions. And I think (same emphasis, indicating a modicum of concern that I may be incorrect) that I still have the time for three papers in six steps--without driving myself completely around the bend with requirements for virtually instantaneous turn-around. There's an in-class portion of that stream that I'm a little nervous about: the part in which I essentially simply say to students, "These are the mechanical problems I see in your paper: sentence-level errors, documentation errors, overall format errors. Here are the pages in the handbook that address those problems. Find the problems and fix them." I will no doubt have to point to at least one example of each problem--but I am going to try very hard to only point out one, maybe two examples and leave the rest of the "search and destroy" mission up to the students.

There are two reasons why I want to approach mechanical problems that way. One is, it's the only way I can spend most of my attention on deeper level concerns while still having an opportunity to point out the necessity for the mechanics to be clean. I can't do all the layers of revising I want to do while still allowing time for me to extensively mark a "mechanics" version. The other is, eventually students do need to find and fix errors on their own. It's OK if they still make the error initially; they simply need to go back at the end, learn to recognize the error--"Oh, there's a comma splice!"--and know how to address it. Eventually, after enough iterations of the error-find-fix pattern, they'll stop making the error, or make it less frequently. Ages ago, I ran into a former student who told me that he still found himself writing and suddenly thinking, "Bozo error!" and fixing it. I don't use the "bozo error" thing any more; pointing out "static" (which is what I now call it" seems to have the same punch to the gut effect, even without my taking points off for it.

Essentially, when students see any marks at all on a paper, what they hear is "You're a shitty writer." It's going to take an enormous amount of reassurance and careful discussion for them to see my marks as feedback: nothing more, nothing less. I want them to see a mark on a paper and think, "This is something for me to notice: if it's good, I need to figure out why; if it points out a problem, I need to figure out how to resolve the problem." The whole re-design of 101 is intended to facilitate that process--and to begin the process of teaching them to evaluate their own writing. They won't get all the way there; that's why there is (mercifully, still) 102--and why Paul does "draft day" with students in his lit classes, too (a tactic I'm considering, though probably not for this fall).

Learning to write well takes a lot of time and practice. Writing has always come pretty easily to me--and I'm still learning how to do it better and need to continually practice.

Shifting gears: before I got lost in all things composition related, I spent some time writing up my sabbatical report. I can't remember if I mentioned this, but last week I found out that, in order to retrieve our sabbatical application folders, we need to submit a copy of our report on the sabbatical, explaining what we got out of it, what our students will get out of it, and how important the work is to the college. One copy goes to Bruce, the other to the VP for faculty services (or whatever the hell her title is). In the past, that felt like busy-work, but what the VP's administrative assistant told me is that the VP is often called on to produce a report that defends sabbaticals: granting them at all, and granting as many as the college does. The only way to keep funding for sabbaticals in the college's budget is to make a case that they're worth it, hence the significance of our reports. The last one I wrote felt like an awful lot of bricks made out of precious little straw; this time, I had to restrain myself, or I'd still be blathering about it. The difference between my two sabbatical experiences continues to astound me.

But, ahem, I still haven't returned to that last piece, the critical essay.... Well, there's still time before summer is over. Here's hoping.

Now, however, it's time for me to move on into my evening. Tomorrow is the big Board of Trustees meeting. The current plan is for me to have my riding lesson, come home to shower off the smell of horse, and head to campus to work there until time for the meeting. Not sure whether I'll post prior to the meeting tomorrow--I can virtually guarantee I won't post tomorrow after the meeting (I'll need to get home and decompress)--but at some point I expect I will post about the meeting. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Scattershot

The day started with the training session on Blackboard. I mostly noodled around on my own, as there was a lot of review for people who had taken part 1 of the training last week and a few who didn't get the notice that the room had changed and thus showed up late. There was also a long discussion about online learning more generally, how it's done at other campuses, problems with online pedagogy and attempts at solutions--most of which I tuned out, as it seemed to be largely people responding to a woman who had not been there yesterday, who had not gotten the notice about the room change, and who felt very free to highjack the conversation based on her experiences teaching elsewhere. I think she may be a new adjunct, based on some of the things she said, but she obviously felt she knows best about just about everything. I tend to be that way myself on occasion, though I don't think I'm ever quite so aggressive about dominating the direction of a conversation, never mind the direction of a learning session. I'd have been more annoyed if I had been waiting to learn the next thing, but as I was cheerfully engaged in teaching myself--"what happens if I click on this? Oh, cool! OK..."--I didn't mind.

The best part about the entire session, as far as I'm concerned, is that the instructor, god love him, kept saying, "You can forget all this, because the first bunch of times you use Blackboard for a course, we will help you do it all: we'll either do it for you, or we'll talk you through it." I like to do things myself, but it is nice to know that at a certain point I can just say, "OK, you guys take the wheel." It's also nice to know that at any point in the process, I can contact Adam, the instructor, and say, "I'm sorry; I don't remember how to..." and know that he'll be happy to walk me through it.

The only down side to all this is that there is more careful conceptualizing that I have to do if I'm actually going to run my 101s as "web enhanced"--which is ideally what I'd like to do. There are some things I still want them to do on paper (actually, most things I still want them to do on paper), but if I am going to use some of the tools on Blackboard, I need to decide whether they're mandatory (and if so what the grading criteria are) or if they're simply there as a kind of back-up. That includes submission to Turnitin.com: I can set up the links for each assignment right there on Blackboard--cool--but I don't want students to therefore assume they can submit all their papers electronically.

And--thinking about 15 steps ahead, as I tend to do--I'm already thinking, "What do I need to do in order to create fully online versions of the lit electives I like to teach that don't already exist on line? And what credentials do I need in order to teach them?" If I could teach Native American Lit and/or Nature in Lit online, that would be great, as I bet they'd have a better chance of running.

In any event, I certainly have plenty to do in terms of prep for fall--just for the 101s. I'm not even thinking about the MDC course, as I have a very strong sense that it isn't going to run, despite my very jazzy fliers. But time will tell. (Or we'll see: take your pick.)

I'm looking across the office at that enormous pile of folders that I pulled out yesterday for further organization, and I realize I have absolutely no interest in digging in to that today. Because I want to go into the City for a pair of dance classes, there is a self-imposed limit on how much time I "can" spend on campus, and I don't have enough time to wrap my mind around what needs to be done before I'd have to put it all down again. I'm not good at that. There are certain logical stopping points in any particular project, but until I'm at one of those, I hate to set everything down and try to pick up where I left off at a later time. Because of something about the way my mind works, when I try to do that, I invariably end up having to back up a bunch of steps to remember what I was doing and what my logic was. Of course, I often end up doing that even when I do reach a logical pause moment: often I'll suddenly think, "Actually, it would probably make more sense to do X," and then I have to back up and track that new logic all the way through what I've already done. I used to drive myself crazy with that with copy-editing: I'd suddenly realize that a particular style or format would make more sense than what I'd been doing--or that there was a need to codify a style or format for something--and I'd have to start all over from the beginning to implement that change (and would invariably find other errors or things to reconfigure along the way).

Oof-dah.

In any event, I have to be on campus next Tuesday for the BOT thing (and my "this will change the entire universe" three-minute remarks), but I have other things on my agenda that may make it difficult for me to put concentrated time into office organization that day. I had planned on being in to work on scheduling adjuncts for fall starting next week, but the information won't be quire ready yet. However, since I'd planned to be on campus anyway, I may go ahead and come in on those days, even knowing that I'll have to be back again the next week to start the scheduling. I strongly suspect that the scheduling will take all the mental energy I've got, so it makes sense to do office organization next week, scheduling the following week--and then be the hell away from campus until August 17, which is when I have to be back working with Bruce on the wildly complicated domino patterns that will fill the ten days or so prior to contract signing (and possibly even several days after that).

But that's later. For now, I'm going to leave that enormous pile of crap on my desk (and hope it doesn't spontaneously combust before I can get back to it), check e-mail one last time for the day, and then head off into my evening of stumbling around trying to tango.

And next week will be whatever next week will be.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Great File Purge of 2015

I completely filled one tall paper-recycling bin and came close to filling a second when I experienced a the usual moment of brain fry: I get to the point at which I no longer can make organizational sense of whatever it is I'm trying to accomplish and have to just stop. There is an enormous stack of folders now on my desk, which require further sorting, and two of my file drawers need a great deal more organizing--and I may even be able to completely empty a drawer and still have enough room for the stuff I actually feel compelled to keep.

That category--"stuff I feel compelled to keep"--is rather large and completely without rational foundation. I have operated a lot on the same two criteria my ex and I used to use in cleaning out closets (which we did annually--not, I might add, at my instigation): 1) if you haven't used it in two years, chances are pretty good you're not going to, and 2) if you had to relocate, would you take this or get rid of it? I have an entire drawer of photocopies of research I did for my dissertation--and another drawer (albeit a smaller one) of the same kind of photocopies at home--and although I can't say I haven't looked at them at all since my defense, I can say with absolute certainty that I haven't looked at them in the past ten years. And yet, I can't seem to bring myself to ditch them. And yes, I'd probably pack them into boxes and move them, if I had to relocate--though why I would is beyond me. Paul makes a case that there is value to hanging on to that stuff, but--while I am more than happy to concede that there is value in it to him--I'd be awfully hard pressed to say what value I find in having all that paper around. I wouldn't even want it all scanned and stored in some unlimited cyber something--as I'd be even less likely to remember its existence or find any use for it if it weren't periodically leaping out of a file drawer to insist on its right to be.

Clearly, this will be an ongoing task--but I would like to get to a point this summer at which I feel like I can say, "I have now been through all of this, even if only at a glance, and have opted to keep it" instead of "I really should go through my files one of these days."

Shifting gears rather radically to today's session relearning the online course platform--Blackboard, so I don't have to keep referring to it generically--it's starting to make sense. Because I've been "trained" before, all my classes are available for me to monkey around with--not just the classes for the fall but everything I've taught since that initial training session. I hid the vast majority of it (I now know how to do that), and I am actually working with real material in the course in which I want the material to be available. That makes a huge difference to me: I'm not "playing in the sandbox" but am figuring out how to do what I want to do.

Another difference is the instructor--who very openly said, right up front, that the best way for us to learn Blackboard would be to walk in and say, "I want to do this, this, and this" and be shown exactly those things, instead of being shown every possible bell and whistle. In fact, several times, the guy teaching us said, "You can ignore all that: this is the only bit you need." Perfect.

And I do have two very specific questions for tomorrow's session: two things I did before, in my "sandbox" but don't remember how to do any more. One is to set up discussion boards, so students can engage in conversation about the readings outside of class and as they're doing their own research and beginning their papers; the other is to set up a link to Turnitin.com. I don't know if I can make it so students are automatically registered, but even if they can access Turnitin from Blackboard, I can put the class ID and password up on Blackboard, so they can't lose it, along with brief instructions of how to get set up with Turnitin.

I'm getting pretty excited about the possibilities, as it turns out. Even though I'm teaching entirely face-to-face, having the back-up for everything on Blackboard eliminates a lot of the hand-holding: lost a reading? It's on Blackboard. Can't find that video again? It's on Blackboard.

That leads me to a rather awkward segue into talking about the female student from the fall 101 class who drove me insane with her refusal to engage in the work coupled with a refusal to withdraw, even though I told her repeatedly that if she stayed in the class, she'd fail. I've mentioned several times that I have been on the fence about whether to send back her paper with my comments (which she asked for) along with my response to her self-evaluation--and today I decided that, yes, I want to do that. However, I ended up softening my response to the self-evaluation. In the softened version, I speak more in sorrow than in anger--and I acknowledge what I didn't let myself admit before: her refusal to engage in the work of the class may not have been motivated by arrogance so much as by fear--even if she didn't/doesn't realize that's what was going on. If she's used to making good grades without effort, she's probably terrified to try anything new. She even said--I can't remember now if it was in person or in her self-evaluation--"if it ain't broke, don't fix it." What she didn't want to acknowledge is that nothing was broken: she has clearly mastered how to write a high school paper. She was instead being called upon to learn something completely new--and that's a point I intend to emphasize with my students this fall.

Along those lines, I'm going to show a video to class--and I'm posting it on Blackboard. It's been making the rounds on Facebook, and it's a brilliant metaphor about learning to do something you think you know a completely different way: https://youtu.be/MFzDaBzBlL0

Of course, the narrator of the video conflates--or possibly doesn't know about--different kinds of memory: riding a bicycle requires "procedural" memory, which is unlike "explicit" or "declarative" memory. This is why people with certain forms of amnesia or dementia can sometimes still play a musical instrument--or, well, ride a bicycle. We're not "thinking in a rut" when we ride a bike: we're not thinking about riding a bike at all; we're just doing it. But as a metaphor for the challenge of, say, learning to write a paper for college when all you know is how to write papers for high school, it's brilliant.

Shifting gears yet again (no bicycle metaphor intended here), there is a special meeting of the Board of Trustees tonight--not the one at which I'm signed up to speak (which is next week) but one in which they're probably going to announce that the search for a new college president has "failed"--again--and what will happen next. It's about an hour from now, and if I were being gung-ho and rah-rah about politics here on campus, I'd stick around for it--but I figure speaking next week is plenty for now.

Oh! And I forgot to mention yesterday that part of the discussion in the seminar hours meeting was about faculty pairings for conferencing with students, and although Bruce and Cathy are adamant that we will never, ever, ever be able to persuade the Administration of the desirability of our working with our own students (I think we should at least try, but I bow to their understanding of the politics of the place), there is, in fact, a good chance we can get the pairings idea to fly after next year. Next year is going to be a hell of a bumpy year as we try to figure out who is responsible for what and how to get everything running, but the fact that we have just that glimmer of hope about faculty pairings is something to hold on to. And given that sense that there's a possibility of us getting something close to what we want, I will hold off on my plan to be snide and sarcastic at a BOT meeting in the fall, thanking them for rejecting a proposal that would have made me actually have to do meaningful work with my students and instead only asking that I have X number of students in my presence for X number of hours--while we play Parcheesi or Scrabble or something.

And one last bit of good news, just for me personally, but it's great: long story, but I finally got an memory upgrade to my computer so it isn't insanely, maddeningly slow any more. Squeaker-horns and confetti cannons!

Ack, that's it for now. I'm stick-a-fork-in-me done. More tomorrow, I bet, since I'll be here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

She's up! She's up! No, she's down...

Today's meeting of the seminar hours committee was relatively painless (though people talking over each other is always a bit of a problem), and when it was finished, I decided to come up here to the office to try to sort out the assignment schedule problem that tripped me up yesterday. I thought maybe it would make sense if I worked on the schedule document in the computer while looking at my hand-written grid, and that worked fine for the first paper--but when I got to the schedule for the second, things started to fall apart again. It feels a little like those moments in a riding lesson when the horse does something unexpected, I manage to keep my seat--yay, good recovery!--and the next thing I know, I'm lying on the ground looking up the horse's nostrils.

Backing up for a moment here: those of you who have been paying careful attention may be thinking, "Wait: second paper? Didn't she decide to only do two?" Well, yes, OK, I admit, I did--but then I realized I didn't want to lose either of the actual topics. Students may not be tap-dancing with glee at doing a paper that has an environmental focus, but I think it's important, dammit, and I don't want to boot that in favor of the social technology topic. On the other hand, students do get at least a little jazzed about the social technology thing, so I don't want to take away their lollipops. Consequently, I've been trying to figure out how to do it all--while accommodating the utterly screwed up schedule that is caused by the fact that four college holidays fall on either a Monday or a Wednesday--so we have a "Tuesday is a Monday" day and a "Tuesday is a Wednesday" day, and the "Tuesday is a Wednesday" hits just when the second paper would be reaching final stages.

Something's gotta give--and I'd prefer it not be my sanity. I'd also prefer it not be a paper topic, but I may not have a choice there, if I'm going to walk the students through more steps in the writing process.

I also was picking specific pages from the newly selected handbook to assign--and I realize there is a lot less in this new handbook about putting a paper together and revising than there is in the handbook I decided not to use. Hmmm. In a way that may be OK: most of the handbook assignments from the new book are relatively brief, so doing them should be somewhat less onerous for the students. On the other hand, I may have made a choice that means I lose the ability to turn some of the explaining over to the handbook instead of having to cover it myself in class. However, assuming the handbook will do the explaining for me includes the assumptions that A) students will read the pages and B) students will fully understand what they've read. Those may be invalid assumptions.

In any event, I've printed out the absolute, ungodly mess that is the syllabus and assignment schedule as it now stands--and maybe tomorrow, after Blackboard session 1, I can come back to the office and try to get myself out of the tangle I've created.

By the way, to my delight, Paul was here when I got to the office prior to the committee meeting. Not much to his delight, though, I'm afraid. He was happy to see me, but he's truly being hammered by the need to get up to speed on issues he has to address in his position on the Academic Senate Executive Committee (or Council, or whatever it calls itself). I do not envy him that challenge in the least, but purely selfishly, I'm thrilled to bits that Paul is in the position, because I know he'll be brilliant at it. Miserable, perhaps, but brilliant.

On a completely different note, I'm delighted that in the past week, there have been two comments on the blog: one from "The Brit" (who isn't), very charmingly explaining why his voice mail sounded so different from his voice in class, and one from an actual Brit--or at least a Ph.D. candidate in the UK--who is looking to establish contact with an educational forum. I explained that this blog isn't a forum of any kind (unless it counts as a forum when I stand on my own little soap box and rant), but I'd sure love to hear more from him, especially if he finds a more formal forum (or creates one).

And somewhat along the same lines, I've been engaged in lovely e-mail correspondence with a colleague from the biology department: I sent out an "All NCC" e-mail linking to an article about the fact that Mount Sinai is now actively recruiting undergrads in the humanities as potential med school students, and she responded with interest and warmth, I replied... and eventually we're going to meet to talk and exchange ideas, much like I did in the fall with the colleague from Marketing and Retail.

Somehow that reminds me that there is a building tucked away on campus that houses something like the "Center for Academic Excellence." My first thought about that is, shouldn't the whole campus be a center for academic excellence? My second thought is, why don't we know about this entity and what exactly it does? And my third thought is, can I join? I seem to vaguely recall that a colleague in the English department may have been involved with it at some point--and I got the sense that it was one of those "mission without a plan" sort of things: we're supposed to do something wonderful, but no one knows exactly what--or how. But I'm also thinking yet again about my long-standing desire to develop an Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies degree here--one that includes the humanities and social sciences (and sure, why not Marketing and Retail, if they're talking about sustainability, as apparently they are?).

I probably don't have the energy or interest to make it happen, but, well, one never knows. In any event, it's lovely to know there are like-minded faculty on campus--and to find more of them all the time. I wish more of the students were like-minded (and educated, or educable), but hey. That's why I don't want to give up that topic in the 101s--which, not so parenthetically--are still woefully in need of students. At this point, the only class on my schedule that I'm sure will run is the Mystery and Detective course. Everything else is a waiting game. Oh, Bruce and I are going to have so much fun in August. I suspect I'm going to start the semester already frazzled.

Which is all the more reason for me to get the schedule for the 101s at least worked out now: one less thing to fret about later. And in the count-down before I head off to the conference, I've entered the period of time in which things start to roll faster and faster until I feel like the White Queen in Alice and have to run as fast as I can just to stay in one place.

On which note, feeling rather breathless, I'm going to try to locate one file, then fold my tents (tense?) and steal away. Perhaps there will be another blog post tomorrow....

Monday, June 1, 2015

You know, it's the little things...

I've spent today working on my reconfigurations of ENG101, the first-semester freshman comp class, and as I was trying to keep straight in my own mind what information students would need at each stage, I kept getting confused and forgetting what I've done where and how I wanted it all to work--and how to get it all to work the way I want it to.

I started to feel, "OK, I've got all the individual parts sorted out"--but when I went back to look at the calendar, I realized I'd forgotten one little detail: that I need time to evaluate the students' submissions and return them. I can't ask them for a response to my comments if they don't have my comments yet. (Duh.)

What this means is that I need to have all the assignment bits printed out next to me, my 17-week calendar grid next to that, and a very large eraser, so I can juggle things around.

Some bits I think I can have the students do in class. That's another thing I tend to forget: If they're submitting completed work on a specific day, that's great--but how are we going to spend the class time? One day for peer review, yes, but then ... well, it all sort of falls apart in my head.

As I'm writing this, I'm also thinking it through: maybe the in-class work on X date can be that they get their papers back with my comments and they write their responses and revision plans right there in class...?

The most maddening bit is to have felt like I had it nailed and then realizing that I didn't, that I need to very carefully and methodically work through step by step.

It almost makes me wish I'd decided to work on the Betrayal and Fidelity chapter instead--except that Wednesday and Thursday of this week, I'll be on campus, trying once again to understand Blackboard, the online course platform, and I want to have real material that I can use when we play around with it. The last time, we did just "make believe" sort of exercises, and that approach doesn't work for me: I'm not very good at the abstract; I need concrete. I want to put my syllabus and assignments up online: how do I do that? I want students to access Turnitin through the online platform: how do I do that? I want to have a discussion board online: how do I do that? As I've mentioned before, I really don't give a rat's ass about most of the stuff that the IT folks want to show us: they get all excited about various bells and whistles that I think will be of zero value to my students, or my courses. They're used to dealing with the kinds of classes in which there is a body of information to be mastered--specific facts to learn--which is decidedly not what composition classes are about: there's quite a significant difference between learning even a complex set of interconnected facts (as well as the interconnections) and learning a process that underlies a skill. I can't even quite express what teaching writing really is: yes, it's a skill that needs to be mastered, but it's not like learning to knit or something; it's a great deal more complicated than that and less mechanical.

No wonder a lot of our colleagues don't "get" what we do: how the hell can one explain it? I probably told this story before, but it's in my mind again: I met with a friend last week at a largish gathering of people I didn't know, one of whom asked me why I needed to provide guidance for students to read The Left Hand of Darkness. Because, I said, they can't read. "What do you mean, they can't read?" "They can understand individual words on a page, but they can't put them together in their minds to form anything that makes sense." She was utterly, completely incredulous--though my friend, who's taught freshman comp in the past, backed me up--and she asked how that could possibly be. As my friend said, "Well, there's a long answer to that...."

Students are not adequately taught to incorporate written language into their own minds. They are even less adequately taught to use written language for clear expression of what is in their own minds--or anyone else's. And that's the world in which I work, trying--very belatedly--to give students the ability to do both. And yes, it's shocking and frightening that that is what I need to do, that I have to approach language with them on such a fundamental level. But that's where our educational "system" has brought us. There are, of course, the wonderful students who belie everything I just said: they can read and write with intelligence and creativity and deep engagement--but they are in a minority.

Ach, if I go on like this, I'll get too discouraged to go on. So, let me reframe: what I'm doing is working on breaking down the writing process so it feels more manageable to them. What I'm struggling with is finding a way to make each step clear and just challenging enough that they'll learn without being so challenging that they'll give up in despair. And much as there is some sense of despair behind my cheerful reframe here, I have to admit that the attempt, taking on the challenge, is the kind of brain work I love.

Now, however, what I will love is packing up my stuff--I'm at the library--checking out the books I've pulled off the shelves, and walking home through chilly, almost March-like weather. Tomorrow, seminar hours committee meeting (o joy!)--and maybe I can get some work done around that. Time will tell (as opposed to "we'll see"). One thing's for sure, it will, in fact, be another day.