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Thursday, December 3, 2015

17 tons

That's how much stuff I'm lugging home with me tonight. Some of it is "fun" stuff--and I'm not being sarcastic. I'm very much looking forward to pulling together a real syllabus and a photocopied reader for the Modern American Poetry class for next semester. I've only taught the class twice before, and both times I was winging it: photocopying poems as we went along, improvising all semester. I'm not sure if I've gotten more hide-bound in my ways, or less trusting of my ability to stay nimble, or what, but I want things more clearly codified this time, from the moment I walk in the door.

I also want clearer, more structured essay assignments. I don't want them too narrow and rigid--I will always encourage the "student choice" option--but for the more insecure students, trying to write a paper without some kind of specific target is too overwhelming: they need some direction, a little bit of a road map, pick your metaphor.

That makes me think, though, about a meeting I had today with one of the more fragile students from the SF class. She's one of the ones that I've given the guaranteed pass to--contingent, of course, on her actually doing the work. Her second paper was only three pages (barely three pages) instead of the mandated five, and it was more about society in general than about the novels. But in our discussion today, she hit on a terrific idea. I don't imagine her paper will be equally terrific, but I'm delighted that she caught on to a real paper topic. And I made an agreement with her: if the mark would be anything from a C or lower, I'll just either put a check (for a homework assignment) or I'll write "pass" (for a paper). Anything that would be a C+ or higher, I want her to feel the sense of triumph, so I'll write the actual mark on there. That suits us both.

And I did allow the student I was debating booting to stay--and made the same arrangement with him that I made with the much better student who didn't give me the hard copy of her paper until today: I'll read their papers; I won't mark them; they can't revise; the mark will be half what they'd have earned if they'd turned them in on time. It's better than a zero, but it's at least marginally fair to the students who turned everything in on time.

Of course, there are still a few students in both classes with whom I'm going to have to have difficult conversations because they've screwed up in one way or another--but that's down the pike. I don't have to deal with that tonight.

But over the weekend--and constituting some of the tons of stuff I'm hauling home--I want to mark as much of the homework I've been collecting as possible so I can get it back to the students next week and get back on top of things before the final paper onslaught. That will be less fun than starting to play with the Poetry syllabus (for which I am lugging home several huge anthologies plus folders of poems I've already copied, just so I can remember what I've used before, what I've got), but the relief of getting it done and out of my hair will be enormous.

And then there's the usual flotsam, which at this point in the semester begins to feel very much like that Texas-sized swirl of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean--just as diffuse and amorphous and hard to clean up. Possibly less toxic, but still disturbing, to me at any rate.

Shifting gears: three completely unconnected things I want to note.

1. The call for a meeting from the colleague I observed was simply a miscommunication. She'd uncovered an old note from me in her mailbox and thought I was asking for a meeting. I think it's sorted out now, but in any event, no need for the alarms to go off.

2. The grade grievance hearing tonight was relatively quick and painless. We all agreed that, much as we hated to do it, we upheld the student's grievance: the instructor's syllabus was a complete mess, and the student had reason to believe he'd fulfilled the requirements. The meeting went on longer than it needed to because, well, we're academics, and we all always have to say things our own way, but it's essentially done. I have to make sure I get the paperwork processed to change the grade for the student, but otherwise, cross it off the to-do list.

3. My students are hilarious. In both classes, they were deliberately winding me up. In SF, they were looking for pictures of the humanoids from the planet in The Word for World Is Forest, who are described as being one meter tall and covered with green fur. Last class, one of the students said he was picturing Ewoks, and I was mock-fierce about how completely wrong that was, so of course, the first picture they showed me was of an Ewok. Then they were finding all sorts of ridiculous artist renditions of these humanoids--all of which I'm sure Le Guin would detest--and laughing at my reactions. In M&D, they were starting to talk about the final book of the semester, Tana French's In The Woods, and one of them said--just loud enough for me to hear it--"There are too many characters." I said, "Do not start with me. Just don't start." They all laughed.

I like it when they get to the point when they joke with me, tease me, when I can tease them: humor is wonderful. But in M&D, there was a different kind of moment, unlike anything I think I've ever shared with my students before. One student asked why a character, whose two best friends had been abducted and presumably murdered, would pretend that one of them was his twin brother and still alive. Another pointed to a passage in which the character says that he'd liked the idea that at least in the minds of the people he'd told the story to, his friend had still been alive. I don't know why, but I decided to tell them that, when my eldest nephew was killed in a car crash, I was going to write to some cousins who had known him well but with whom we'd lost touch, to let them know. My sister asked me not to--because, to them, he's still alive. My voice cracked. I had to fight back tears. And to keep from crying, I had to say, "OK, so more from you. Please." I think they heard the real plea in that: I needed them to take me out of that moment. And they did. It was a sweet and lovely moment of them taking care of me, and I'm grateful to them for it. I don't know if I can ever tell them that, but I truly am. That will live in me for a long while, that moment.

And now, I want to take that, like a tiny, delicate treasure, and carry it gently home with me. I am beyond tired, so tired it hurts, but I feel like I can breathe after the pressure of the week--all papers graded and back in the students' hands--and it's time to turn off the professorial mind for the rest of the night, and be very quiet and still.


1 comment:

  1. Very moving, Tonia. I too had a voice-cracking edge of tears moment -- in American Lit I -- last evening -- some one touched on the condition of the country now -- as in 1861 -- and I thought of my brother in law washed far away off North Carolina and his strong progressive voice forever stilled -- and I started to say "It's ten minutes till 4 on the morning of April 12, 1861...the chimes of St Michaels in Charleston are about to begin..." I turned to the blackboard and furiously cleaned up tears and cleared throat..and then turned back into the present and Emerson and exam preps...But there it is! We go on because we must! Barry

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