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I welcome students readers to this blog. However, be aware that, although I do not use anyone's actual name, the descriptions of behaviors and conversations are not disguised. This is a space in which I may rant, vent, and otherwise express responses that I would do my best to mask or at least tone down in professional interactions with students. This is my personal, gloves off, no holds barred, direct from the gut expression of what it feels like to do my job. If you think you might be hurt or offended or upset by that, read no further. The person I'm ranting about could be you.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

P.S.--Encouraging signs

I sent an e-mail to all my classes, just to see who's already checking (and who checks after I mention e-mail communications in class). I told the students that, if they received the e-mail before their first written assignment is due, they should e-mail me and write the word "swordfish" on the bottom of their first assignments. I already got two responses, one from a student in one of the 102s, one from a student in the SF class. Extremely cool beans.

One pearl already through the floorboards

This is not a good omen for the start of the semester: I've already let something fall through the cracks. I fully intended to go to an information session about ENG100 this week, so I could find out whether the parameters and requirements of the class would work with what I want to do--but in a moment of brain fade, I didn't write the date and time in my calendar, so I conveniently misremembered when it was scheduled. I really wanted it to be today at 2. It was yesterday at 10. I'd been thinking for a few days, "I really should write down when that meeting is, so I'm sure," and then conveniently forgetting to do that--until yesterday, when I checked my e-mail at 10:46.


Cathy was very understanding about it; I think a lot of us are already on brain overload, just trying to get set up for our classes and get all our meetings sorted out. There's already a meeting conflict brewing: I probably need to attend a meeting of the curriculum committee about the DEE (Distance Education Equivalency) for Nature in Lit, and the past chair of the committee wanted to reschedule the first meeting to tomorrow, when I already have a seminar hours meeting. (By the say, she said she is stepping down as chair--and I don't blame her. She's essentially done the work of the entire committee single-handed, with occasional assists from a very small handful of others--and the tasks of the committee are large, important, complex, and time-consuming. I was co-chair for a while with Scott, as well as being the elected rep to the College-Wide Curriculum Committee, and I was very happy to let all that go a number of years ago. She has my complete empathy for doing the same.)

I also am having a complete brain fade about whether I ever figured out how to get our new office printer to print the index cards I use to keep student records on (attendance, grades). I had it in my head that I was able to figure it out--but if that were the case, there should be a stack of blank cards here, and there isn't, but there is such a stash at home. I'd rather use the printer here, as my home printer is an ink-jet, so the print runs if it gets wet, but I'm not sure I want to wrestle more with the office printer if I've already been to that fire. But I just looked at the paper drawer, and it seems like I should be able to get it to work....

This is the kind of idiotic minutiae that keeps me awake at night. I do love solving problems and puzzles, but the fact that I obsess about this trivia is ridiculous.

But setting that aside, all my classes are filled to the max. At the last minute, a whole bunch of classes suddenly filled--and I suspect a lot of students are going to be unable to take the comps (or remedials) they need because we canceled so many sections and then got a late flood of enrollment. I just looked and there are a few evening sections that are not at capacity, and a few ESL-dedicated sections that are still underenrolled, but everything else is booked solid.This is something to keep in mind for next fall. We don't dare give sections that look weak to FT faculty--it's too much of a gamble--but maybe we should keep more sections open longer to accommodate a late surge. (Note to self.)

So, now that I know the numbers for all my sections, I've made all my photocopies for the first two weeks and sent out a bunch of things to be copied by Printing and Publications (which I would do with more of my handouts if I knew enough in advance how many to ask for). It's been a long time since I taught to a full house--if indeed I ever have. Scheduling the first round of conferences is going to be a bitch and a half, I'll say that. I'll probably have to bail on at least one Advisement session (and make it up later), and may have to come in on a Friday, just to give every student a chance at a time.

Scott is working on a memo to the department about the fact that we're allowed to work with our own students--but we're being warned not to focus our meetings with them only on class assignments, as it is very important to the administration that our "seminar hours" are--in their minds--doing different work from our office hours. Quite honestly, I use my office hours more for mentoring, so using seminar hours to work on a specific assignment is different from my office hours--but because other departments do things differently, the administration can't conceptualize what we (I) want to do. In fact, during the second round of conferences, some of the meetings may very well look more like mentoring--or a mix of mentoring and work on the assignment. It will be interesting to see. And I'm already planning how to account for the time. I'll be curious to see, at the end of the semester, whether I come close to the mandated 45 hours of time or not. Closer than I've been, surely, but that wouldn't take much.

I'm trying to think what else I might have forgotten to accomplish here today. I actually made more photocopies than I originally intended, but the machines were free and (more important) working, so I figured I'd make that metaphoric hay, as it were. I'm feeling unaccountably anxious about tomorrow. It's been a long time since I've had "opening night nerves" before the first day of the semester. I'm not sure if it's because I'm trying some new things or if it's because all the other factors--committee responsibilities and the work I need to do on the Nature in Lit DEE in particular--are already feeling slightly ominous, as if I've over-committed myself yet again. (Scott and I exchanged a few e-mails about the whole "Once you're a full professor the pressure is off" thing, and how it doesn't seem to be at all the case for us: the curse of giving a shit.) We'll see. If the feeling of pressure gets too intense, I'll figure out what I can ditch. I'll be up for re-election to P&B at the end of this year, for one thing. I don't much want to ditch it--as long as I'm evening supervisor, it makes sense for me to be on it, among other things--but it's that or seminar hours, and I won't abandon Scott.

But that's the future. Ain't nothin' I can do about the future right now; no telling even what it holds. So, calm yourself, Prof. P--even if doing so requires a rather large vodka gimlet...

And tomorrow, I'll meet the SF students. Cool beans!

Monday, August 29, 2016

General update

The semester hasn't even started yet, and I feel like I have a few too many balls in the air, or plates spinning, or whatever analogy you like. So, I'll try to provide general updates.

As for the student who wanted the letter of recommendation--the one I originally misidentified: I did write him a very diplomatic e-mail withdrawing my consent to write a letter for him, and I got a reply that started, "Well damn I didn't think you'd cop out..." and asked if my decision was because he had been so slow to respond to my request for information (and a readable copy of his play). But then his message turned into a wild meandering riff on his idea for his play (produced on Broadway, with a jazz concert instead of intermission, in a series of plays, a new one produced for each season...), wondering if such a thing had ever been done or would work. As Ed pointed out, not only does he not have any sense of the frankly ridiculous grandiosity of his ideas, he doesn't know anything about live theater, hasn't paid enough attention to know what has or has not been done, or what happens on Broadway, or anything about the business. In any event, I wrote him a slightly less diplomatic reply--beginning with a statement that I rather took exception to his characterization of my decision as a "cop out"--but also suggesting that perhaps he needed to get a little discipline over his life and his art before he starts thinking his work is going to get produced on Broadway.

As for the student who had one more paper to finish to fulfill her incomplete: I have decided the ball is definitely (or defiantly, as my students would write) in her court. I've left her several messages--both by phone and by e-mail--saying that I have not received that last paper. She has until December to contact me, but I'm not putting any more effort or energy into trying to rescue her.

Turning now to the domino chains of scheduling: Bruce and I managed to find someone for every unassigned course, at least provisionally. (A few hadn't responded with a yea or nay by the time I left the main office to come upstairs.) A few classes are still "on hold," meaning we haven't canceled them, but there aren't enough students in them yet for them to run. But Bruce has officially sprung me from any further involvement in the final clean up. I think he was very grateful that I could come up with a few three-way swaps that got things covered--though of course I'm now sweating that we screwed something up somewhere. We already nearly did: we had assigned the same class to two adjuncts, but mercifully, one of them declined it, saving our bacon, as it were. And several people that we called turned out to have a lot more availability than we knew, so we could give them and additional class. Bruce is always terrified we won't have enough adjuncts to cover everything, but we always do somehow. I do feel bad for the ones who wanted classes but didn't have availability when we had classes to distribute. Ah well. We can't please everyone.

In terms of my own classes, the SF and one of my 102s are filled to capacity: 32 students (plus two senior observers) in SF; 28 students in the earlier 102 section. The later 102 is filling nicely--primarily because it's one of very few left with seats still available. It was briefly at 17 (it's capped at 27); when I checked a minute ago, it was back down to 16--but that's still more than I had this morning. I'm holding off making copies of the syllabus and other multi-page first day handouts until I have a better sense of how many to get--but the number could continue to shift all the way through next week, as the add period doesn't end until midnight on Sept. 7--after I've already met with the classes.

That said, although I know the other classes won't stay full, it is nice to know that the specific students may change (someone drops so someone else quickly adds), but I can't have any more students in either of those sections than I have now. (And we know that by the middle of the semester, I'll have significantly fewer.)

I should note, too, that I've already been in e-mail contact with a student in the SF class who has severe visual impairment. He contacted all his professors by e-mail, and we've bounced a few messages back and forth. I think he's going to be a good addition to the class: his e-mails are certainly articulate, and he is proactive about his responsibilities, so that's good. On the other hand, I also got an e-mail from a self-professed "helicopter parent," the father a student in one of my 102s who wanted to know what books his son will need so he--the father--can buy them in advance. I really wanted to say, "You know, it's your son's responsibility to get his books or not. It's time to fly the helicopter off somewhere else." But I didn't. I did, however, tell him about the mentoring program and suggested he encourage his son to sign up. Still, I hope the parent doesn't turn out to be a problem--or the student either, for that matter. (As a slightly mysterious side note, I looked on my roster for the student and saw no one with the father's last name there. I mentioned that to the father. It will be interesting to see if I hear more or if there was some kind of mix-up there.)

Even though Bruce has officially sprung me from my administrative duties, I will be coming to campus on Wednesday for a meeting of faculty interested in teaching our relatively new comp course, ENG100. In terms of progression through the comp sequence, it is the equivalent of 101--but it includes an extra 50-minute lab, on top of the regular 2.5 class hours, and up to now, it's only been offered to faculty with demonstrated success teaching both 001 and 101 (and a few who were part of the initial pilot but have never taught 001)--and the content was very rigidly controlled. I talked with a colleague who loves teaching it (everyone I know who teaches it loves it), and he said that a lot of those rigid rules were disappearing. So I figured I'd find out more about it to see if I can do it the way I'd want to: essentially, exactly like my 101s, same topics, same steps, but more one-on-one time in the lab component. I think it's the wave of the future--more students test into it every semester, it seems--so it behooves as many of us as possible to learn to ride that wave. Especially as 102 may become a thing of the past: a lot of the schools our students transfer to don't require two semesters of comp, and a number of our discreet degree programs can't require it as it would interfere with licensing regulations.

And speaking of waves of the future, I'm still plugging away at getting the online version of Nature in Lit ready to roll. I don't want to do a whole lot of actual course construction in Blackboard until I know it's been approved--or at least the approval is in progress--but I'm working my way down the checklist of what needs to be prepared and how it needs to be shepherded through the approval process.

So, one of the decisions I have to make is whether to come to the office tomorrow--to help down in the office with the tail end of contract signing, make copies for the later section of 102 perhaps, work on another chunk of the paperwork for the Distance Education Equivalency forms, or whether to stay home and simply do the last of those, plus continue rereading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I'm finding that much more interesting to reread than Frankenstein was; I'm seeing a lot more thematic material than I did before. Next up: at least a leaf through Oryx and Crake so I can help students understand the interwoven timelines.

And classes start Thursday. I still can't quite wrap my mind around that.

I should also note--just in terms of expressing gratitude whenever possible--that I announced to the department (via e-mail) the publication of my story "Birds in the Head" in the online journal The Belmont Fiction Review, and I have gotten extremely generous congratulations and praise from my colleagues, some of it quite humbling. I do work with an amazing group of people, and I am deeply, profoundly grateful for that--even when one factors in the occasional pain in the ass colleague.

Now, if we can just figure out who would make a good chair when Bruce retires--who would also be willing to do it. The people who would be best at the job have already respectfully declined even the suggestion. Interesting times ahead.

And what's ahead for me is toddling off campus and heading for my evening of life maintenance. If I'm in the office, I'll post again tomorrow, very likely (and possibly even if I'm not in the office). And apres Thursday, the deluge.

Friday, August 26, 2016


I started to send all this as an e-mail to Paul, asking his wisdom and clear vision, since we have a very similar attitude about our students and share closely aligned pedagogy. Then I realized I just needed to write it down so I could think about it clearly (though talking to Paul--and William, though William and I are more different in our approaches to students and teaching--would certainly help). Here's the dilemma (and I post this knowing that there is some chance the student may occasionally read the blog, which would present a whole new set of problems).

Earlier in the spring, a student sent an e-mail asking me for a letter of recommendation for his application to a play writing program at Julliard. I asked him to send me a sample of his creative writing as a reminder of what he could do, and he has sent me a few snippets of one of his plays--and has not been very proactive in responding to my e-mails letting him know that I can't open some of the snippets. When he has contacted me, however, his e-mails have been so badly written as to be opaque. I hadn't yet sent the letter to Julliard, waiting to see the whole play--and he's now asking for a second letter. I offer a portion of that e-mailed request as an example of his communication skills: "I am also applying to Five Towns Music, may you send me your letter of recommendation to their school, of course though, English is not music but the fact remains of a student. I can't describe more."

What?? I think what he means is that he wants me to write a letter about him as a student in general, since I'm not in a position to comment on him as a musician--but the fact that he can't express that clearly and says he "can't describe more" is problematic, to my way of thinking.

I also have to say that what I've seen of the play may be groovy and avant garde, but it might also simply be a pretentious mess.

When I got his first request, I actually thought the request was from his older brother, who had been in my fiction writing class and whom I remembered as an excellent writer and an earnest and responsible student. Now that I've spent some time looking into my records, I realize this is the younger brother: he was in my 101 and got a C, and he was briefly in my SF class (last time I taught it) but withdrew because I had a stern talk with him about the fact that he kept coming to class unprepared--and kept trying to derail the conversation by throwing out big, amorphous philosophical questions instead of focusing on the readings (which he hadn't read). I had expected him to respond to my little lecture in the hallway with dedication to doing the work--but he chose to bail instead. That did not leave a favorable impression.

I was already feeling concern, thinking I was dealing with the older brother, because I saw clear evidence of a lack of responsibility, as well as a lack of verbal clarity. I was baffled, because that didn't fit the student I remembered from Fiction Writing. Now that I'm clear on which brother the request came from, I'm even more hesitant to write the letter--because my memory of him is significantly less positive. If I hadn't made the original incorrect assumption, I would not have agreed to write the letter: I'd have said that, given his track record in my classes, I wasn't a good option for a positive letter and that he should look elsewhere.

Oh, and there are holds on his records, which means he hasn't paid a bill or in some other way has not followed through on a responsibility to the college as a whole. More reason to feel I can't, in good conscience, write him a positive recommendation.

So, what do I do? Do I write the letters I've promised but express an honest appraisal that will almost certainly completely sink his applications? Or do I withdraw the offer--and if so, what do I say to him about why? Should I be honest with him about my concerns, or should I beg off on some other excuse?

I started to write a response to his latest request, saying I'd be glad to send letters anywhere he likes, as long as he gets me the information I need about where/how to send them, but then the doubts got too loud, and I left the message unsent, as a draft, while I think about it more carefully. Thank god, since the whole saga began with a misidentification of the student.

But now, having written all this, I do think I can respond to him somewhat honestly and withdraw the offer to write letters. It will certainly take several drafts before I get the correct tone--I don't want to be unnecessarily harsh--but I truly think the best course is for me to withdraw the offer and suggest that he look elsewhere for the recommendations.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hit by a bus?

I kinda feel like I've been hit by something, or, as my aunt would have said, like I've been drug backward through a brier patch. Frazzled, to say the least. Bruce was telling me not to worry about things, while he started losing his own patience--and ability to keep track of what his own notes meant. I lost track of about a million things myself: the fact that we have to keep records in multiple places started to cause problems (as it always does), but I tried to reassure Bruce that I wasn't worried, I was just conveying reminders--as much for my own benefit as for his--but he talked right over me. Fair enough. I piped down. He came in very late and left relatively early; I stayed later, but I'm about to head for the hills myself. The domino chains are still falling, but we got enough nailed down that our one remaining full-time office administrator can work on typing up adjunct contracts tomorrow, so they're ready for signing on Monday. There are still some classes unassigned (which does worry me, Bruce; I can't help it), and we're still awaiting word from a few adjuncts about whether they'll take what we have to offer or not. And I made a huge mistake and asked a full-time faculty member if I could help her when she came looking for Bruce; her request was relatively simple and made sense, but she was very concerned to convey all her various priorities and reasoning and so on, so what could have taken about 1 minute took more like 20.

Well, this is why I get paid the big bucks. The "funny" part is that my pay for evening supervision has gone down, because enrollment has gone down--but the amount of work I do prior to each semester has actually increased, as low enrollment means that scheduling is much more complicated. Well, c'est la vie. It does feel good when a knotty problem suddenly gets untangled and smoothed out. That doesn't go in the actual bank account, but it does mean that I am content to do the job.

As for my own schedule, the one 102 is still holding at 10 registrants--but the only other 102 offered at that time is almost full, so pretty soon, anyone else who wants to take the class at that time will be forced into my section. Again, I am baffled by why the other section is filling and mine isn't: I'm sure the Rate My Professor rankings are pretty equivalent (though for different reasons), and mine is alphabetically first on the scroll-down list--but it comes just below a big flag about the course above being an online course, and students don't pay attention to the word "above" and assume that the flag is for the course below the notice. That's the only thing I can think of--and I've just sent a message to the head of Advisement about it, hoping a few students can be chased into my section over the next few days. Bruce can also do what we call "leveling": taking students out of a section that is full (or nearly so) and placing them in a section that has low enrollment--and if the numbers in my class don't pick up over the weekend, I'll suggest that to him on Monday.

For now, however, I'm going to look briefly at what I have in the various chaotic stacks and piles around the office, maybe do a little organizing (or maybe flee, taking the Scarlett O'Hara approach), and then stagger off to do some life maintenance. I won't be back in the office until Monday, thank God, but I'm pretty sure I'll post whenever I finish my part of that day of cleaning up the results of the domino chains.

To quote Thurbur's wonderful story The Thirteen Clocks, "Goodbye, goodnight, and sorry."

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Creative problem solving

Bruce and I managed to find someone for all but three or four classes (after a few strategic cancellations), so now the creative problem solving begins. We have to swap Cox for Box for Sox for Dox kind of thing--and that's before we start getting the return phone calls saying that Box doesn't want class Q, which sets us scrambling again.

Still, as has been the case with scheduling full time faculty, the hard part is always when we get to the end of the stack and have less to work with. Well, so it goes. Bruce wasn't worrying about having "reserve" classes set up for some of our FT faculty who are looking at sections that are running pretty light (though he did already make a few swaps)--so I took some time to try to have a contingency plan in place, even though he kept telling me not to worry about it. I do worry, in part because it does us no good to offer a course to an adjunct, only to say, "Oh, oops, sorry: we need that back." It's better to say, "This is reserved for a full-time faculty member, but if that person doesn't need it after all, it's yours if you want it." We do let adjuncts know when classes are on hold--meaning the section could still be canceled for under-enrollment--and as a general policy we let them know about the "reserve" clause on what we're offering them, so I don't know why Bruce isn't worrying about having those reserves in place yet. It's certainly easy enough to set up the reserve, and if we don't need it, all the better.

But that's my thinking, not his.

As for my own classes, enrollment has been increasing rapidly in one of my 102 sections, and the other added a few more today--so I suddenly realized I hadn't ordered enough copies of the reader. I'll have to trot over to Printing and Publications tomorrow to see if they can do it for me in time. I know they'll moan and complain, but they usually get copies done way before we need them, so I think they can do it: they just don't want to face the bitching if something goes wrong and they can't. I fully understand that, and I'd do the same in their position, but man, I have my fingers crossed--because this is a job that would not come cheap from Staples. Well, we'll see.

Meanwhile, the SF class is nearly full--and still has only four (maybe five) women in it.

The fact that the numbers keep shifting also means I keep putting off making the photocopies of all the first week (or two) of handouts: there's no real problem if I end up having to crank out a few more at the last minute, but I think I can wait until Friday, or maybe even Monday (when adjuncts will be signing contracts). The main thing is to try to beat all my colleagues to the copy machines before the machines break down or run out of toner (both of which are routine occurrences in the first week of any semester). I've made a list of what needs to be copied and in what order--for about the fourth or fifth time--so I'm hoping I can keep myself on track and have what I need when I need it. I also keep running into the "Oh, yeah: when do I want to hand that out?" phenomenon. The abbreviated copies of the syllabi that I use to keep track of what I'm collecting and what I'm handing out now have hand scrawls all over them--and this is before the semester starts and I begin juggling due dates.


I have a little more time to fritter away before a doctor's appointment, but I think I'll head off anyway, maybe walk around the area near the doctor's office instead of sitting here trying to figure out what else I can do. That always ends up being dangerous. "Oh, I'll just do this one more thing; it won't take very long" invariably makes me late for appointments. And I'd like to be on time--plus it will be nice to walk around outside a little on this absolutely gloriously beautiful day.

Monday, August 22, 2016

And so it begins...

Today was my first day working with Bruce on adjunct schedules. We will easily finish tomorrow; we only have about 30 classes to dispose of, and probably almost twice that number of adjuncts. Bruce has, of course, already put contingency plans in place for the full-time faculty whose schedules are in danger--and enrollment is behaving very oddly: sections that were frighteningly low suddenly fill; others sit at the same low number of registrants day after day. Even within a certain time block, how the sections fill is strange. Normally, the assumption is that students are picking professors who have friendly ratings on Rate My Professor, or those whose former students rave about how wonderful they are--but that doesn't seem to be the case this time. Two of my most popular colleagues have sections that are insanely low; some colleagues whom I know are not well thought of have sections that are suddenly close to filled.


So, even though Bruce and I will be done with the preliminary scheduling tomorrow, I'll probably come in more days than not, just to make sure that "I'm ready early" thing doesn't evaporate. I'm still not sure how many copies of things to make: the SF class is taking off (27 students--only 4 female, possibly 5, but the name is in a language unfamiliar to me, and not counting two female senior observers); one of the 102s is in good shape, the other still languishing at 10. But at least I can go through the syllabi and make sure I have the right handouts ready in the right order--or know when to put in an order for future handouts. (I'll try to use Printing and Publications as much as possible, to help conserve the departments toner budget.) Speaking of copies, I realized belatedly that I wanted color copies of a handout, and I didn't want to put a rush on the order with P&P (since they get too much of that at this time of semester anyway)--so I ordered them online through Staples. Surprisingly inexpensive and easy. Insert "thumbs up" emoji here.

The only somewhat down note is that I still haven't gotten the final paper from that student who was fulfilling her incomplete. I've sent her several e-mails--all of which have gone unanswered--and left a message for her with her boyfriend, using the only phone number I have for her, and still no word. I did briefly consider sending her a letter as a final warning, but on further consideration, I've decided I've prodded her as much as I intend to. If she wants to complete the course, she can contact me. If I haven't heard from her by the end of the fall semester, the Incomplete automatically converts to an F. That's actually the grade she "earned," but I had high hopes when she was trying diligently to rework those papers. Ah well. She may yet come through on it, but the hope is fading rapidly.

On a much brighter note, I don't remember if I mentioned, but a former student has appeared on my SF roster. She was in my Fiction Writing class the first time I taught it, wrote the most lovely, nearly perfect soap-bubble of a story--and her mother stopped me as I was walking back to the office to tell me I'd saved her daughter's life: this young woman has struggled with depression, had given up writing--even though it was one thing she truly loved--and found great encouragement in taking up the pen again. She withdrew from the course, and I believe she transferred to another SUNY campus, so a little piece of me is concerned that she's back--but mostly I'm just delighted to have her in my class. If she's struggling again, I hope I can again be useful somehow.

On that note, I'll sign off for today. I'll probably post tomorrow, maybe most of this week, in fact. Classes start a week from Thursday, and that's when the usual Monday through Thursday blog posts will resume--though I may miss an occasional Thursday, in order to get into the City in time for tango class, with these dancers as my instructors (and, actually, in the studio where this was filmed):