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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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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Virtually endless...

My social engagement for today got canceled, so I have been able to get some work done--but I realize that no matter how much time I allow myself for work, I will manage to find a way to create more work than I have time to complete. I worked pretty consistently today (in fact, I really need to get up and move), but I still didn't make much headway. Still, each little bit helps at least some.

I decided I wanted to use at least some different readings for the first essay and probably the second for the 101s, so finding what I wanted took some research (which is always, as I say to my students, time consuming, repetitive, circular, and frustrating). I think I found things that will work, but that means also reconstructing the assignment schedule--assigning more per class, in order to have time to get everything covered. (I'm suddenly rethinking that a little: the days when they have to bring in something they found using their own research can be days when they also have to read something I provided; that way everyone has one thing in common to discuss as well as something new and different.) I also now need to reconstruct the essay assignment a bit--I think it will be better, actually, as I have a clearer focus for them, which will help--but I haven't gotten there yet. I just started working through the assignment schedule and realized that either I have to ditch the idea of conferencing with the 101s (which would be a shame in terms of what they learn, though certainly easier on me--if I allow myself enough time to mark essays to return to them), or I have to seriously tear the schedule apart and reconstruct. I also realized that I want to get essays from them on Wednesdays, not Mondays, as that buys me a few extra days for grading, which will help--but again, it requires a reassembly of the order of assignments.

Which means I have to do some serious, careful thinking about how the timing will work out and what is an appropriate amount of time to spend on each bit.

I could probably keep going--I don't feel I've hit a mental or physical wall yet--but the house cleaner is about to arrive, and I need to clear out before she gets here so she can clean without my being under foot (and so I can do whatever I need or want to do without the distraction of her being around and wanting to chat).

Much as I would love to pretend that there's a chance I could get more work done once she's finished cleaning, I know damned well that once I'm back in the house, my mental acumen will be on super-power-saver mode: very few functions running.

I realize, too, that I won't be working at all the next three days. Tomorrow, I leave the house at about 11:30 and won't be back until after 7; Saturday I leave the house about 10:45 and won't be back until after 7; Sunday I'll meet with the cat sitter, then meet with my friend to go play for the rest of the day. So I won't be posting again until Monday--unless something very unlikely occurs. And after Monday, I'll be getting ready to leave town, or will be on my travels. I know the vast majority of my readers are "newness" junkies: if I'm not providing something new on a regular basis, they'll disappear--so my readership will drop off sharply over the next month. But for those of you who enjoy the blog enough to keep up with it whenever it's active, I'll probably be back to pretty regular posting after July 20. So, please tune in on Monday, and then please mark your calendars to tune back in around that date in July; I may post occasionally from my travels (on days when I spend some time working, which I will do, no doubt), but once I'm back home, the pace will be picking up significantly. Let's hope enrollment does the same. Six in one 101, four in the other, and still holding at nine for SF. Cathy "hid" 36 sections; it will be interesting to note how many (if any) of those hidden sections we end up revealing--and filling. Things are tough all over.

But it's a glorious day out there, and it's early enough that I can take a lovely walk, which is precisely what I intend to do next.



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sidetracks and SNAFUs

I did a slap-dash job looking at that final piece of student work--and did a little massaging of the points in order to give the student the A she truly deserved for the course (had she been in a better situation and more able to tend to her studies). The proper forms have been submitted and she has been notified.

I do notice, however, that both students whose D+ grades I raised to C's have yet to thank me in any way. Qu'elle surprise.

Mostly I was working on scheduling--and we uncovered several unexpected problems with the courses that were officially on the books, problems that needed to be solved before we could proceed with the scheduling. Then there were the usual problems of really good faculty only being available when we have no courses available, and really crappy faculty being available for everything under the sun (and we have to give them something unless we have established a pretty long--and reasonable--chain of evidence for why we shouldn't).

Long story short: I didn't get any of my own work done today--and Cathy and I didn't get as far with scheduling as we'd hoped. Unless Cathy changes her mind over the weekend, I'll be back in on Monday to help her out.

And there is a possibility that my planned day of socializing tomorrow may get canceled; my friend may be called in to work. I will be disappointed; she and I haven't had a good long day together in a long time, and it would have been fun--but on the other hand, it would mean a day I wasn't expecting to have in which to churn through some work.

Assuming I don't succumb to the siren call of the sofa again.

Now, however, I have to dash off to PT. I'm in the office and am having the Pavlovian response of being ready to work work work--but nope: I have PT, so off I go. Maybe more tomorrow. Maybe not. We'll see.

Monday, June 19, 2017

No work today

I realized as I was putting my breakfast together that I was getting such a late start, it didn't really make sense to go to campus today. Turns out, Cathy isn't quite ready to do that preliminary work on schedules anyway, so no harm, no foul there. But even as I sit here at the computer, with a pile of folders beside me waiting to be attended to, I realize I am not going to work today. I could; I should. But I'm not going to. I'm going to read until I have to go to PT, and then I'll head into the city for my dance workshop, and that will be the day. (I already did my fiddle practice, though I probably should have practiced for longer.) No work tomorrow, either: it's a day with a friend. So, if all goes as planned, I'll be back to working--and posting to the blog--on Wednesday.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fiddling while time burns...

I am not quite yet in panic mode about how little I'm accomplishing each day--nor about how long I'm spending on what little I'm accomplishing--but I can feel the pressure beginning to mount a little, primarily in the form of anxiety jolts when I contemplate getting on a plane in ten days. I know that it is likely I'll get a little work done in the second half of my trip, as Ed and I are good at parallel working (and we enjoy it), but I'm not sure how things will go while I'm with my family in Montana.

Most of today was spent working on the instructions for reading notes, both for the SF class and for the 101s. For the latter, I needed to explain annotation in some detail, as they are required to annotate the articles they read as well as providing expanded notes. They hate that process, considering it a huge and useless time-suck--until it comes time to write their second essay, when they start to realize that it really does make essay writing easier if they've done that preliminary gathering of potential evidence and ideas about the evidence.

The primary change I made to the thing about reading notes for the SF class (apart from changing the font, which I mentioned yesterday) was to actually annotate the passage from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea that I use as an example for how to write notes. In an earlier draft, I'd scanned a couple of pages from something else that I annotated--really annotated, for my own purposes--but since I was pretending to be a student in how I wrote up sample notes, I though it might help for me to pretend to be a student in annotating. It was just one page--and I guarantee that a lot of the students are going to freak out: "Do we have to do that much???" But I'll assure them that they will find the balance: some pages will be heavily annotated, others not so much. The main thing I want them to get, however, is the connection from annotation--which simply identifies the details one wants to focus on--to notes, which are a form of prewriting essay points, to essay writing.

Actually, what I want them to get is a) that attention to detail is crucial and b) that there is a process from reading to writing that requires some thought, some analysis and synthesis. If I ever find the "magic bullet" assignment for that, I'll write it into a book and retire a zillionaire.

It's still very early today, and I'm sorry I've already hit the wall, but I've completely lots the ability to focus even on organizing what I need to do, never mind actually doing any of it. Retreat is decidedly the better part of progress today, counter-intuitive though that is. If I try to force myself on ahead, I'll only make things worse. Giving up for today may (please God) give me a little more reserve to draw on tomorrow. I do have to go to campus tomorrow to work briefly with Cathy on adjunct scheduling stuff; at least I hope it's brief, so I can then go up to my office to work a while on my own stuff before heading off to physical therapy and then my dance workshop.

Speaking of the dance workshop, I'm very aware of the different kinds of frustration I feel as a student of three different things: west-coast swing, tango, fiddle. I'm finding the WCS workshop frustrating because it feels too slow and too simplistic: I keep thinking, "I've got this part already; I know this. I want something more, something else." The counter to that frustration is to remind myself that even the parts that I think I have already, I can still improve upon significantly, and since I decided to go ahead with an elementary level workshop, it's up to me to use it to my own best advantage. Tango is quite the opposite. I feel like the advanced beginner class is just the right level: I am challenged, but I am capable of keeping up--and I got a compliment from the teacher yesterday: in addition to a verbal compliment, she also wanted to use me as the demonstration model, as it were, because she knew I could show the other students what she wanted them to see. That's damned good for the ego, even though I know I still need to "marinate" in the basics for a long, long while. (That's an analogy used by one of the other instructors at that same tango school, and I love it.) Fiddle is very frustrating in some ways, as I'm struggling with baby, basic stuff I should have learned 18 months ago--but I'm just so thrilled to be learning it that I don't mind. My new instructor is not at all effusive with praise--which I appreciate greatly, since I figure praise from her actually means something, and I didn't feel that way with my other instructor, who would praise me when I knew what I was doing was shitty. I'm sure she intended to be encouraging, but it's possible to be encouraging and still insist on things being done right. (Eventually I hope to get to the point at which I stop comparing the new instructor to the previous one, but I have more resentments about that former instructor than I realized, and I need to work them out, apparently.)

I was going to say I feel better about my progress as a student than I do about my progress as a teacher--at least in terms of my current task of trying to improve assignments--but I do think the assignments are better, more clear. They're still about ten times longer than they ought to be, but I'm considering how I can make sure that students actually read them and think about what they say. Including a response to the information about reading notes as part of the beginning of semester self-evaluation is a good place to start, probably--but I need to think about timing of assignments, what I can expect by when.

Oh, and did I mention that the academic calendar for fall is finally available? It isn't available in all the places where it should be, but at least I know what days are being adjusted for the Jewish holidays, and it's really not bad at all: one day off, and one Tuesday is a Thursday, which doesn't affect my class in the least, so, whew. I can start constructing syllabi whenever I want. Which will be ... um, eventually. Enrollment numbers are still very low, but it's also early days yet. Still, it seems word has gone out that taking SF from me isn't as much fun as it "should" be ... but I still think the class will fill well enough to run. I'm actually more worried about the 101s, and there isn't a damned thing to be done about them.

And right now, there isn't really a damned thing to be done about anything else, since I am effectively intellectually incapable of more review and revision of handouts. So, my faithful readers, until tomorrow, I remain sincerely yours...

Friday, June 16, 2017

Workus interruptus

Today was one of those days when I opted to stop working in order to do some life maintenance, hoping to get back to work once I got home. I didn't really expect it would happen, and in fact, it did not. I got home, practiced violin (more on that in a minute), and now? Too late to start anything. It's that whole "I'm like a semi" analogy: it takes me a long time to gear up to top speed, and it takes me even longer to gear back down again. Starting to gear up at 7:40 p.m.? No time to get really working before I'd have to start gearing down again, so...

I did a little work, though, which is better than no work--and I was working on the 101s. What I realized is that even the handouts that don't really need to be reworked, I'm changing in various small ways, in that perpetual quest for the perfect assignment, or the perfect way of conveying what is expected from any assignment.

I've made a few notes to myself about what I need to revisit yet again, once other decisions have been made, and I've made notes about what I want to address next--which won't happen until Sunday--and I'm rethinking some things I did or thought I wanted to do.

And I've realized I truly dislike sans serif fonts. I tried using Arial or something similar on the (repeatedly reworked) handout about reading notes for my lit electives. On the computer screen, I don't mind it terribly, but printed out? I just hate it. However, I'm running a small experiment: I'm going to try a font other than Times New Roman: something with serifs but with slightly more expanded, rounded letters (Bookman, perhaps, or something similar). It may make the handouts look slightly less dense. One hopes.

Shifting gears to my experience as a student, rather than a professor: today was the kind of practice I should try to remember to tell my students about. I missed two days of practice but wanted to be sure to get some time in today, prior to my lesson tomorrow. And today's practice was just about the crappiest of the week. I had two responses: one, making notes about what I want to review with my instructor. Two, recognizing that today's crap practice doesn't mean I won't do well in lesson tomorrow: that was just today.

But the take-away from that for my students is this: if what you write on one day feels crappy and awful, that's only a problem if you don't give yourself time to keep working on it. If you give yourself time to keep working--the way I'll keep on practicing "Boil Them Cabbage Down" for some time in various ways (faster tempo, with double stops or without)--then you'll hit the moment when suddenly things fall together: Ah! There it is!

That's the biggest hurdle I have to get over with students. They honestly, sincerely believe that the first thing they write is the best they can do, and I absolutely know that is not the case. So one of the little adjustments I've made to assignment sheets today is to give each one a header on the first page, quoting Epictetus (or at least one of the possible translations of what he said): "It is impossible to learn what one thinks one already knows." I don't know if they'll get it, but they'll see it, over and over, on assignment sheets. (I may or may not also include my own statement: Professors don't give grades; students earn them. That's struck some chords in the past--generally good ones.) But the point of the Epictetus quotation is to remind them that they have to let go of what they think they know in order to learn anything further.

I keep thinking about the student from many semesters ago who wrote in her self-evaluation that she learned a lot--but contradicted herself by pointing out that she really already knew all there was to know about writing. If you've been following the blog for a long while, you may remember my bitching about her--and my long debate over whether I should write a letter to her (since she never collected the final essay she said she wanted me to mark for her). I ultimately did write her the letter, stating that we both needed to acknowledge that she didn't learn anything--precisely because she didn't believe she had anything further to learn. The letter wasn't as snarky as I felt, but I didn't pull any punches. I've often wondered what became of her, how she did after that semester. (She failed my class, incidentally, largely because she didn't turn in about 80% of the work.)

I almost want to start the semester by asking my students, in all sincerity, whether they truly, in their deepest hearts, believe I have anything to teach them that a) they don't already know and b) they will find valuable. But even apart from whether I really want their honest answers, I don't think they know enough about themselves to begin to answer the question.

All this should lead me to feeling disheartened, as it reminds me--uncomfortably--of just how much resistance and ignorance (and frequently truculence) I will face in the fall. But oddly I find it is, at least at this particular moment, somewhat inspiring, because it helps me consider how I might reach them. That's a psychological approach that I find endlessly fascinating...

But now, just all of a sudden, I am without any further energy to think about this at all tonight. There will be no post tomorrow; it's a day of me being a student (if all goes as planned: yoga, tango, fiddle), so my teaching self will take a break. I may, however, return to the fray on Sunday. It would be good to get more done...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Two things, maximum three

That seems to be how I feel these summer days, as I may have mentioned before. (I tend to forget what I've said when and where, as I am turning into my father and tell the same stories, relate the same realizations, over and over.) I can do two things in a day. Sometimes, if I'm super ambitious, I can do three. So, today's two things were go to physical therapy (for my shoulder this time, since my back is better) and install a new router at home. I will do a third--practice violin--but I already feel like a petulant pre-teen, whining about having to do anything at all. (Stand up; sit down; anything.)

So, despite my desire to get some semester prep done today, it's not going to happen. Probably not tomorrow, either.

But I did install the new router. Complaining about having to do it was exhausting (actually installing it was super easy).

That's all I've got for today.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Less than spectacular productivity...

I got to the office much later than I planned--in fact, I barely got here in time to talk to Cathy before she had to leave, and that conversation turned out to be more complex than I anticipated. She was more hesitant to waive the comp requirements for the student I spoke to yesterday, but she'll meet with the student on Monday to read a sample of her writing--and she said that even if we waive the comp requirements, she'd want the student to take a literature elective as one of her humanities requirements. I actually don't think the student needs any humanities courses: I think they're covered by the courses she can transfer back from Oberlin. But the student was fine with that as a compromise--so now I'm just hoping that when Cathy sees this young woman's writing, she agrees that waiving the comp requirements makes good sense.

We also had a talk about fall scheduling. Unlike Bruce, Cathy doesn't want to do much work on it now, as she wants to "hide" a bunch of sections to try to get other sections to fill, and we don't want to assign "hidden" sections until there are enough students to fill those, too. Interesting difference in leadership styles: Bruce was more reactive (do the assigning, then "level" sections or cancel and reboot); Cathy is more proactive (fill sections first, then gradually open more as we see what we actually need). This does mean that the two weeks starting August 14 are likely to be pretty frantic--all the more reason for me to get as much semester prep done as possible before I leave town in two weeks--but I think Cathy's methods may ultimately work better, as we'll have fewer domino chains of consequences from canceling sections.

And this is a perfect moment for the mantra "we'll see." It will all be, um, let's say interesting.

I read both of the essays from the students fulfilling incompletes. The one I was worried about still had a little in it that I'm pretty sure came from somewhere other than the student's brain, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt (and Turnitin didn't raise any flags about it); she just squeaked out a B. I'm waiting for one last bit from the other student; she was supposed to drop it by today (which is part of why I came in), but turns out she couldn't make it. I told her to drop it off before Monday. I already calculated her grade, actually, so I don't really need the assignment: with or without it, her grade calculates as a B+. I'm debating whether to boost her marks somewhere to give her an A, just because I know she's capable of earning one. I'll figure that out on Monday and submit the change of grade for her at that point.

That will be four grade changes in one semester: that's a record for me, and more than I hope to do again, but c'est la guerre.

I also fiddled around a little with handouts for fall, but I spent a lot of time on a thing about SF--defining science, science fiction, blathering on about what genres are and what SF is and blah blah blah--when I suddenly thought, "I've written some of this before; I know I have. Where might it be?" It is, not surprisingly, in the "course description" part of the syllabus. What I have there is not as lengthy (and still probably too wordy), but it covers the bases. I originally was going to simply dump the handout I was working on, but I've retitled it "lecture notes" and I'll rework it so I can refer to it when I talk to the class the first few days. I hope I also remember to write a note to myself to write things on the board. It really does help students keep track of what I'm saying. I could do a Power Point presentation (antiquated delivery system, as far as my students are concerned): that would have the advantage of being something I could post on the Blackboard page so students could refer back to it--but it also would take a lot more time to create (though creating it would be fun: I like that design process way more than I ought to). Well, something to think about.

What I didn't do was work on any of the handouts for the 101s--and there will be a whole lot more of those than there are for SF (though even the SF students will groan at the number of handouts--and their length). I may shove the whole bunch of folders into one of my tote bags to take home with me so I have them to refer to as I work tomorrow.

I do plan to work from home tomorrow; I'm not interested in coming in to campus again, even though it is easier to get into work mode here. I have to be back on Monday to work with Cathy on whatever preliminary sorting through we do on the adjunct schedules (she'll work on them when she's upstate, though I wish she'd rely on me more instead of doing everything herself). And I assume that, whenever I wrap things up with Cathy, I'll come back upstairs to crank away at my own stuff, even if it's just to have printouts ready to send off to Printing and Publications, so I don't use up all the department's copier toner and add to the wear and tear on the machines. We're supposed to send big jobs to Printing in any event--but it's hard to do that without sufficient lead time, and right now, I don't know how many copies of anything to get, as I have no idea how many students I'll have in any of my classes. (Right now, three in one 101, four in the other, and nine in SF.)

But that's all down the road. For now, I'm going to figure out what, if anything, I want to take home--and then head out to do some life maintenance stuff. Nothing urgent, but it will be good to get it taken care of.

Posting from home tomorrow, is my guess. Thanks for hanging around over the summer, faithful readers. I'll try to continue to keep you amused (or whatever you are).

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In the office...

I haven't been here long, and haven't done much--in part because I know I'm going to have to come back tomorrow. One of the students who is fulfilling an incomplete needs to drop off one more part of the final assignment, and I need to talk to Cathy about a few things.

Here's what I accomplished: I responded to a student who had sent an email wondering why she got a D+ when she thought she was doing well. I sent her the grade calculation sheet, and her grade technically works out to a 67.15, which is indeed a D+. However, adding three of the missed reading journals in, using the average mark that she made, would get her just over the crest into a C--so I just gave her the points and submitted the change of grade request.

I made that decision largely in the context of the student who was whining and complaining and making a huge stink about her D+ earlier. Two factors played into today's decision. Factor one: this other student wrote a very respectful, calm, mature email, simply asking if I could explain why she got the grade she did. There was no whining about how harsh I was, how unfair the grade was, none of that. When I got her email--three weeks ago now--I responded to let her know that I'd have to check my records and let her know. I've not heard anything, which might mean she's not checking email but which might also mean that she was doing what I asked, which was to wait until I could get back to her. So, her adult behavior got her a lot of Brownie points. Factor two: this other student's essays actually were all C-level essays (unlike the whiner, whose final essay was a bit of a train-wreck, as I think I mentioned)--and this other student came to see me several times to get extra help, talked to me after class, was very proactive in her own learning process. So not only was her writing more deserving of the C grade, she worked to learn something to earn that C. So, if I gave the whiner a C despite her not really deserving it, I figure this student should get the same bump up to a better grade, as she's a great deal more deserving.

As for the students fulfilling those incompletes: I'm a little nervous about reading the essay for the one who was guilty of triggering some plagiarism flags. I gave her the incomplete so she'd have a chance at a higher grade--and honestly, right now, I can't remember if a C would be good enough for her or if she's really hoping for a B, and I can't remember (and am too lazy to dig out the paperwork to find out) where she stands. The other student should do just fine: she's good for at least a B+, possibly even an A, depending on how this final version looks.

But I am too tired and lazy to deal with either one of those today. I've been having a lot of disrupted sleep the last few nights, and between that and the heat, my brain feels limp and wilted, certainly not ready to read and think carefully about student writing.

One other little note about today: when I was in Cathy's office, working on adjunct schedules, a young woman came in to the office, and I overheard her talking to the secretary on duty about how she already has a bachelor's degree from someplace good (I forget where right now) and she wants to get a bio degree here but doesn't think she should have to take our comp sequence... I went out to talk with her: she was agitated and clearly was expecting to have to fight to get the comp requirements waived--but I explained that the only reason it was coming up is because none of her courses specifically lines up with our Comp 1, but that of course it would be ridiculous for her to have to take freshman comp after she's written a 25-page thesis to get her degree. I'll talk to Cathy about it, as I don't know what administrative hoops we have to jump through--but I also mentioned that we will soon be running a course on writing in the sciences, and the student lit up like the Fourth of July: she'd love that; she'd take it in a heart beat. I told her it's still a 100-level course, but she was thrilled at the thought. It was nice to be able to calm her down, let her know we're not going to be unreasonable about this--and to get confirmation of my initial impression, which is that this is a student who wants to learn; she just doesn't want to take courses that are ridiculously elementary given her clear accomplishments. She left a lot happier than she came in, that's for sure--and I'll get back to her tomorrow about whatever Cathy says.

Now, even though I cast my gaze in the general direction of my desk and see huge piles of stuff that needs to be taken care of and cleared away, I am going to blithely ignore it and toddle off toward home. Maybe I'll get more done here tomorrow, or maybe not. Whatever. I'm off like a prom dress...

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Surprise, surprise...

I actually did some work today. Actual work, on classes. I looked briefly at some of the stuff I was working on for the SF class, but mostly I worked on the handouts for the 101s--and although I think things are more clear, they're also still way too wordy and long. My experience has been (and continues to be) that if a student can possibly misconstrue or just plain miss an important directive, he or she will do precisely that. So the challenges are, 1. defending against "But you never said..." 2. defending against "But what are we supposed to actually do?" 3. doing both of those things, simultaneously, using the minimum number of words and words of very few syllables (and that will be comprehensible by students with extremely limited vocabularies).

The latter is why I don't refer to "explicating" a text any more. I don't think any student I ever taught understood what the fuck that meant--even when I defined it and provided a little footnote on the writing assignments that required explication, giving the definition again. Hell, they don't understand what I mean by "contextualize"--which seems like a more familiar word (though I'm not sure they know what "context" actually means) but turns out to be just as opaque to them as "explicate."

Some part of me still has a very hard time accepting the simple fact that the vast majority of students simply do not know how to evaluate and synthesize anything anyone else has to say. How does this idea fit into the context of the original author's argument--and how does it fit into the context of your argument? What's it doing there?

And suddenly, I might as well be speaking Swahili. Whaddaya mean, "what's it doing there"? It's just there: it is what it is... (and I proceed to tear my hair out and gnash my teeth).

But it occurs to me that I didn't say anything about that--the context of an idea--in my explanation of annotation or expanded notes, and I should. Years ago, I was very excited by a presentation at a professional development event in which the speaker demonstrated three very simple diagrams for how arguments work. I even found the handout I tried to use with my 101 students, from which I extracted the following:

This is taken from a presentation given by Dr. Patrick Grim, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook.

Arguments have only three structures. Every argument (making a point through using specific evidence) will take one of those three structures. They look like this:



1                      2                                  1          +          2                                  1
                                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                        2
            3                                                          3
                                                                                                                        3
Independent reasons                           dependent reasons                             
supporting a conclusion:                     supporting a conclusion:         a chain of reasons
each would be a little a                       the argument works

argument on its own                           only if you have both


I tried to get my students to look at an article they'd read and determine which of the three structures was being used--and what the major premises were for the points in the structure--and they could not, could not, do it. But I feel like I may need to go back to it, find a way to make it work for them, so, to use the cliche, they not only see the trees but actually understand how the trees work together to create the forest.

Damned if I know how to do that, however. I mean it: no clue whatsoever about how to get students to do that. As I think about it, however, I realize it's actually more complicated than it seems at first, as the first step that's required is for the reader to be able to corral sentences/ideas into categories, seeing connections, what goes with what. (Also, there are usually more than three "reasons" in any really good argument, which adds a complicating factor.) But I really do want to figure out how to at least begin to get this across to students, not only in terms of their understanding of what they read but in terms of understanding their own arguments and how to structure them.

And yeah: this is why I love what I do for a living. This is the kind of mental challenge that is at once wildly frustrating and energizing: a combination between puzzle solving and psychology, trying to understand the student mind well enough to put something together that will click. That perpetual search for the magic, golden assignment that will produce the desired result in at least the vast majority of the students.

I mentioned in some recent post that I would love to work on all my handouts with a group of students, but my ambitions are even larger now: I'd love to spend an entire semester with students, working on figuring out what they understand, what they don't, where their assumptions are so radically different from mine we are speaking mutually incomprehensible languages.... I'd be a much better professor, and they'd be infinitely better students at the end of any such process. Oh, how I wish we could use seminar hours to actually hold seminars!

Well, dream on, dream ever, but meanwhile, get on with the slog at hand, I suppose.

Shifting gears, I would like to make note of my 15 seconds of fame (I don't think we get 15 minutes any more). I think I may have mentioned firing off a letter to the editor of Time magazine, in response to yet another article that focuses on how important community colleges are as job-training centers and ignoring the liberal arts aspect of two-year schools--and much to my surprise and delight, a portion of my letter actually made the "What you said about..." page of this week's issue. This of course is not at all in the same league as my kid sister being consulted as an expert for an article (as she was some years ago), but still, I'm pretty pleased with myself about it.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of the whole "I can only do two things in a day" thing? I think the laundry is going to have to wait a day or two. I do have to get to the grocery store, but that and my work on 101 handouts constitute the "two things" for today. In fact, I actually got a third thing done, resolving a problem with a missing router from last September. That feels awfully nice to get crossed off the "to do" list after all this time. I'd like to get out for a swim, too, as it's too hot for any other form of exercise, but that would be a fourth thing, so ... well, unlikely, is my guess.

And we'll see what tomorrow has in store. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

It appears not.

I didn't work at all yesterday--not on anything related to school anyway. I got on the computer about an hour ago, planning on getting some work done today, but again, not going to happen.

Here's how "summer head" works. There are two voices. You can imagine the cartoon angel/devil thing, or maybe one person in academic regalia and one in a T-shirt and shorts.

Professorial voice: There is so much I can make better for these classes. The more time I put into them now, the more I can relax later.

Other voice: It's gorgeous out, and I already did two whole things that I meant to do today. I went to yoga class--I even set the alarm so I'd be up early enough--and I got the yarn for a baby blanket that I've wanted to make. That's enough for one day.

Professorial voice: But you didn't go to tango class, and your violin lesson was canceled, so you have all this time that you weren't counting on having, and think of everything you could do!

Other voice: Um, were you listening to what I just said? I already did two things. Two!

Professorial voice: You know, two isn't really all that ....

Other voice: It's a lot! It's a lot! It's summer, and two things is as much self-discipline as I should have to have...

Professorial voice: I'm not sure buying yarn really takes a lot of self-dis....

Other voice: Stop nagging me! Leave me alone! I'll show you: I'm going to get back on Facebook and see if anyone has posted anything new or different in the last 24 seconds.

And so it goes. No wonder students have a hard time doing the assignments, once I've done my part and created them. They have the same war within themselves: I want the results of the work I need to do, I just don't want to actually have to do the work because there is a world of distractions out there, all of which are infinitely more appealing than the tasks before me.

All that said, I think about the fact that I have to do laundry tomorrow and go to the grocery store. That will probably be my two things for the day. (Apparently, unless under extreme pressure, two things is about all I can force myself to do in a day, other than generalized noodling around.) Probably not worth posting about, so forgive me if we miss another day tomorrow.

Then again, miracles do occur, so there is a chance I might surprise myself and get something done having to do with my profession. I don't have much faith in miracles, however.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Actually, the thought doesn't count for much

If the time I spent thinking about work actually accomplished anything much--or counted toward financial remuneration--that would be one thing, but in fact, I think about work a lot, sometimes not even fully aware that that's what I'm thinking about, and generally speaking, it doesn't do much apart from 1. keeping my hyperactive brain busy and 2. occasionally causing some little rushes of anxiety.

Today, I sat down at the computer with the full intention to continue work on revising--and at least ostensibly improving--the 101 handouts, but in fact I did nothing of the sort. I rationalized the avoidance of work with the idea that I was waiting for a call from the mechanics that my car was ready to pick up, and I didn't want to be in the middle of something and have to interrupt it to go get the car.

Well, yeah, nice excuse, Prof. P. Let's be honest: you were perfectly content to simply noodle around on Facebook and playing dopey, mindless computer games. You didn't even do your biweekly finances.

I did, however, engage in a little student behavior. I have signed up for a master class on conservation "taught" by Jane Goodall. It doesn't actually start until fall, and the "teaching" will consist of video lectures with "homework" assignments that encourage the students in the class to think about, respond to, discuss whatever Goodall brings up. The pre-class activity was to go over the timeline of Dr. Goodall's professional life and add to it (if you could think of something important to add), then take credit for what you added. I added the fact that she was a visiting professor of psychiatry at Stanford from 1970 to 1975, and was appointed a visiting professors of zoology at Dar es Salaam university in 1973, a position she still holds. (I'm fascinated about the professorship in psychiatry: I wonder what that was about.) Then we were invited to "take action"--which mostly seemed to mean telling others about groups to which one belongs or suggesting activities others could take. I was surprised that no one had already suggested the importance of either Greenpeace or the Nature Conservancy--and, just because I am so proud of us, I also added ASLE. I probably could have added about a half dozen other organizations I belong to or have had dealings with, but I figured I had sunk enough time into that for one day. I can see, however, that once the class starts, on the days when I check in to see what's going on, I will get drawn into the vortex and will have a difficult time coming back out again. Get a keyboard under my fingers and watch out...

The other studenty thing I did today was to practice the violin. I'm working on a very very simple tune--much easier than the stuff I was working on with my old teacher--but I'm learning to play it correctly, which is a whole different ball of wax. I'm also trying to learn to play it to an appropriate tempo: I start at 54 BPM (beats per minute) just to work on bow position, but I'm supposed to work up to 92 BPM, and I can tell you, at about 82 BPM, the wheels start coming off... Well, this is what practice is for, and all I can do is keep working on it (my instructor did say I should "work up to" 92 BPM--and in our lesson I'll just have to explain that I'm still in the process of getting there).

In an interesting congruence between my experience with conferencing with students and my experience as a fiddle student, I realized today that there will be many, many, many lessons in which she corrects the angle and position of the bow--because I can't "feel" it without her help right now. It took me years upon years to begin to feel what my riding instructor was talking about 99.9% of the time ("Feel that?" "No; what was I supposed to feel?"), so I anticipate it will take an equally long while before I can feel whether my hands/arms are in the right positions with the violin.

But that's what learning is about, that transition from "I don't get it" to "Oh! Now I see!" It's brilliant to watch in my students, and fun to experience in myself.

And that's all the blather I have for today. Again, I'm not taking bets either way about my likelihood of working tomorrow. Could happen, or not. All together now: "we'll see."

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pavlovian response

I had a very hard time getting myself to campus today, partly because I had a very late night last night in the City, being a dance student, but more because, well, I just didn't really want to come to campus. As soon as I was here, however, my body and brain kicked  into work mode without a flicker. I started out talking with Cathy--not about work, mostly, but about family stuff--and I was again struck by what a good, kind, compassionate person she is. Her concern for the life situations of all her colleagues is genuine and extensive--and greatly appreciated by me at least.

Then I went up to the office and began the shift over from putting the spring courses into the file cabinets and pulling out stuff for the fall classes. Along the way, I started tossing things into the recycle bin, as I realized I wouldn't use them again--or at least wouldn't use them again in their current incarnations.

In fact, that started what may be a very interesting--and extensive--process of getting ready for the 101s. I have already revamped one handout and have started work on another, trying to de-word them as much as possible: fewer words, simpler instructions. I am not good at this. I even had a brief fantasy of trying to gather a small group of students to give me feedback on the assignment sheets, so I could hear from disinterested parties what works and what doesn't and why. I know I tend to over-explain, but that's also because I tend to over-complicate. Very little is simple in my brain, which seems to be composed of rabbit trails through rampant underbrush--all of which needs to be explored and explained, apparently.

As I was at work on one particular handout, the student from the spring 102 arrived. We talked a little about how the plagiarism happened; it wasn't intentional at all, but it did take a while for her to admit that she had gone online to get some help with the novel, and that stuff crept into her writing. I told her that she would need to rewrite the places where the plagiarism flags went up--but I also explained that my hunch is she won't just reword those bits so they don't use someone else's language; she'll replace the ideas, once she has a better handle on what she wants to argue.

That's the perennial problem: there needs to be an argument. There are different ways of approaching the "Other" in the novel. Yes. True. But a fact. What's the argument? So what? What is the author suggesting about those ways of approaching the Other? It was difficult to get the student to understand that it wouldn't really help if I were to hand her an answer to any of those questions, as it would be my answer, not hers, and she'd still be confused because she wouldn't know the thinking behind the answer. She needs to find her own answers--and I agree that doing so is not easy. But she's bright enough. Even though she confessed that this is not an area that interests her at all (fair enough), I still think she has the intellectual acumen to pull out better than a C paper. But we'll see.

It also turned out that--even though I struggled mightily to get her a copy of the essay that showed my comments without showing all the other markup as well, the comments weren't visible in what I sent. I don't know why the switch-over to PDF wasn't working, but it really wasn't: I never did manage to export the document from Word to PDF without either losing all the mark up or having all the mark up, including stuff that would just visually confuse the hell out of her. I had a similar struggle with the other essay I graded, though with that one, I did eventually manage to get the correct view into PDF form. I am hoping whatever this wrinkle is unwrinkles itself before I start grading essays for the fall 101s or I am going to be one very frustrated professor.

Now, however, I am going to take off. There is more I could do (there is always more I could do), but it will all get done some other day. And I don't know what day just yet. As I've mentioned a number of times, I'm having a difficult time balancing my desire to be fully on summer sea-cucumber mode and my desire to continue getting work done in order to make August less stressful. But I really don't want to get in the habit of being here until 8 or 9, as I was during the semester, and if I don't wrap it up ASAP, that's likely to happen. And I have no idea whether I'll work on school stuff tomorrow or not: I'm not even going to try to predict. The eternal mantra: we'll see.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Without interruptions--but with little enthusiasm

I got the second of the two essays graded--and as I thought might be the case, it took less time. I will say that the student didn't quite have a coherent thesis (good ideas, but they didn't lock together into a cohesive whole), but she's certainly on the right track--and no signs of plagiarism, so, whew.

I will be meeting with the other student tomorrow evening. That gives me an excuse to go to the office and do some cleaning out of files and general semester prep, It's early enough today that I could easily do some work before I head out for the first of four dance workshops, but ... nah. I'm not even sure I'll make a quick run to the store for some supplies; I may put it off until tomorrow. The sofa calls to me, softly speaking my name, telling me of how soothing it is to just lie upon it and read...

And the heat is down on the family crisis, at least for now. So I think it is a good time to do a little of the sea-cucumber impersonation thing I like to do in summer: wash with the tides and do little else.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Life conflicting with work...

There is a bit of a family crisis unrolling, been going on for a while now and will continue to go on for even longer, and I find I do not do well switching tracks from handling family communications to working. I did get one of the two late essays marked today and returned to the student, and I have to do the other by Tuesday--but I sure am not going to get it done today. It took forever to do the one I did, as I kept putting it aside to answer a text or make a phone call...

Oh, yes: and the update to Windows 10 gave me a problem with my printer, which I had to sort out. I managed to do so without calling on any of my various computer gurus, but it was still a snorting pain in the ass to navigate that.

What I needed to print was the plagiarism report on that essay I was marking. I originally didn't intend to run these two outliers through the Turnitin software, but there were too many paragraphs in the essay I marked that raised red flags. I wasn't sure I could even access the course, as officially it's over, but I was able to upload the essays just fine--and sure enough, the report came back: 17% plagiarized. Some of the "matches" Turnitin located really weren't significant, but some were--so I had to rewrite some of the comments, noting where the plagiarized bits were located. I probably gave the student a higher grade than she should have gotten, especially given the plagiarism problem: she'd obviously turned to a few websites for help with her ideas, instead of relying on articles in the databases, and too much of the language and ideas from those websites crept into her essay. I'm also baffled by her choice of critical essay to include, and the quotation she decided to use: neither have much if anything to do with the topic of the essay or her particular angle on it--which also was difficult to determine. But she seems to get the main idea behind this kind of essay writing: that the point is to delve into the literature to see what is going on inside it, and I wanted to give her credit for that.

And of course what I really want to do is to sit down with her and talk about it; conferencing is such a great tool, much more effective than written commentary alone. I've made the offer to her to do that; we'll see if she takes me up on it.

I don't quite know what to expect in terms of the other essay. If that student has written up to her usual standard, it should be much stronger than the one I marked today--but students do tend to fall apart a bit on the final essay, and that seems to be the case even when I give them extra time, as I did for these two students.

Well, whatever. I'll send them the comments; they'll revise; I'll get the whole magillah, crunch their final grades, and be done with it.

Speaking of final grades, I've just about decided that I will pretend the D+ grade does not exist. That's the one students have been bitching about. D is better than F, but D+ is too close to C for students to take it with any kind of good grace. (Of course, a couple have bitched about the D, and a few about the F, but ... Oh, god, I don't want to relive all that.) I don't think I'll be in that position with either of these students. One is likely to get a C. The other may get an A. I won't know for sure until I figure out the marks for the final submissions of their final essays.

Shifting gears: as a student, I have to share for a moment my happiness over my new music instructor. She's specifically teaching me fiddle, not violin (lots of overlap, but also lots of differences), and she's teaching me very specific, important basics that I should have learned a year ago but that my former instructor either never explained or never took time to drill me on. I cannot express adequately how relieved and happy I am to be frustrated and challenged by those drills and corrections--because I know that, difficult and maddening as they are, they're important for me to really do things right. And that's what I care about. I had the same experience when I changed riding instructors: I suddenly knew what a good instructor was like, as my then new instructor kept saying, "Didn't your old teacher tell you X?" and I kept saying, "No, never heard a word about it."

I think some of my students have that experience with me, but I'm not entirely sure they're grateful for it. I know some are--or they say they are--but, well, they may become grateful over time, when they start to realize I actually do know what I'm talking about.

Ah well. Enough for today. Here's hoping things are more quiet on the family crisis front tomorrow and that I can work productively. It's going to be a cool, drippy day, perfect for staying indoors and working--or succumbing to the siren call of a good read lying on the sofa...

Friday, June 2, 2017

Losing track of time...

I got working on the online Nature in Lit, having a grand time finding illustrations--images to go with each "lecture" (the overall stuff I provide students, what I'd normally try to find time to talk about in class)--and suddenly I'm running late: I have to get rolling so I can get to my riding lesson on time.

Sorry for the super brevity of this post; I may try to add to it tonight when I get home...

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Well, hmmmm

So, I reworked the instructions for reading notes--which may or may not have improved their usefulness for students. And I spent some time writing up a little thing of overall themes in Frankenstein, to provide some kind of toe-hold for students as they embark on the work. I think I'll do the same for all the novels we read this semester: it goes against the grain, but I think these particular students need the boost.

It all kind of wears me out. I'm not sure whether the feeling of being tired arises simply from the expenditure of mental energy or whether it arises from "anger and the soul's resistance" (a phrase from Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, with I've been rereading for about the hundredth time). I don't like having to hold the students' hands as much as seems necessary.

And I may end up booting all of this in a few weeks, when I rethink. I realized earlier that a lot of this work is probably relatively useless, as by the end of summer I will not only have forgotten what I've done but I'll likely have changed my mind significantly about what I want to do.

I'm still on the fence about whether to make that one book mandatory or suggested. I think I'll have to see what the assignment schedule looks like, as I know there is only so much reading I can require at a time...

I also got the first version of the final essay from one of the two students who got an incomplete. That means I have to read and respond to the damned thing, which of course I'm resisting like mad. Part of me thinks, "Do it now and get it over with," but I know it makes more sense to do it tomorrow. I've reached the point in the afternoon when my reserves dip down pretty low; my choices are nap or go out on the bike. It's a gorgeous day--again--so I'll probably go out on the bike, but it's an effort of will not to just collapse on the sofa. I know, however, from experience that collapsing on the sofa can sometimes lead to a weariness of the soul that is not good for me on any level. But I make no promises just yet. I'll sort out the stuff I've pulled off shelves, so I won't be tripping over it as I move around the room--and then I'll see where my energy levels are.

This strange, bumpy rhythm of being on break but still working: I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but I'll keep on with it for a while. When I'm out of town later in the summer, blog posts probably will stop entirely (and I'll lose 50% of my readers, if not more), but that's not anything to think about now. Now, all I have to think about is, well, now.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

More thinking than doing

I intended to do a good amount of work on classes today, either on the online Nature in Lit or on materials for the fall SF class. I was interrupted by a call about a rather urgent family matter, which derailed my work intentions, but for my own purposes, it's helpful if I note what I'm thinking about, and why it's important.

So: reading notes. In thinking about what I'm going to ask of my students in the fall, I realize that even having a good model for them to follow won't really do the trick. As it happens, the handout I have includes a model--and the problem is that they don't really understand what the model is doing. There are levels within levels of critical thinking here, and I realize I need to back all the way out to the most basic, simple, fundamental skin of the onion and work inward from there.

Among other things, the explanation needs to be a great deal more simplistic (and significantly less wordy: my perennial failing, using too many words). But also, I ordered the book I used with the 102s the last two semesters--an excellent (and very slender and inexpensive) book What Every Student Should Know About Writing About Literature, by Edgar V. Roberts--but right now it's recommended, not required. I realize that means that the vast majority of students will not buy it (and those who do are probably the ones who least need it). I'm still thinking about it, but it's very likely I will ask the bookstore manager to change it from recommended to required. That way, I can assign chapters out of it--and I can tell students to refer to it for information about documentation (as it includes that stuff as well).

The book is a great adjunct to what I need to present, but there are a few points I need to make sure I make clear:

1. A lot of why they need to write about what they read is to be sure they fully understand it themselves--because without in-depth understanding, they can't write about what they've read.

2. There is a difference between a book report and literary analysis, and somehow I need to help them understand the difference--and understand what they will need to gather for themselves in order to engage in the latter.

3. I need to tell them very clearly and precisely what not to do--but also help them understand when they're doing those things. What is summary? What is it useful for--and why is it not useful in the kind of notes I want them to keep? What is personal response--and again, why is it not useful for the purposes of my class?

4. There must be some way to get them to understand that not all details are created equal: some questions are unanswerable in any meaningful way (we can invent answers, but the answers would have no support), and some details don't require any real notice. Regarding that latter point, I need to make them understand that even the details that can sort of wash by are still in the text for a reason, even if the reason is "merely" to add depth and texture to the verisimilitude of the work of fiction.

I'm sure there's more that will occur to me--and more that won't, until I start getting the results of all my attempts to set up the instructions for their notes and see all the ways they still don't even seem to try to get where they need to go.

So, that will probably be something I'll work on tomorrow--though maybe not. If the weather is gorgeous again, I may spend the bulk of the day out. It is the break, after all, and I am allowed days to just enjoy the day, doing anything, or nothing.

I'm hoping for an early night tonight. I'd like to adjust my sleep schedule to be a little earlier to bed and earlier to rise (without an alarm, though, thank you very much)--but whatever the evening brings will be fine by me. And tomorrow will be ... well, what tomorrow always is: another day.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Writing past the writer's block

I spent much longer nailed to the computer today than I intended, but it turned out to be a very good thing. A good friend emailed earlier with some suggestions for how to get myself out of the knowledge gap that was keeping me stuck, and in answering her, I shook a few things loose. I spent the day reworking chapters I'd already "finished" (knowing that "finished" just means "I don't have to work on those for now") and revisiting the dreadful chapter that had run me full tilt into writer's block. In the process, I kept doing "quick and dirty" research--most of it relatively ineffectual--but I'd get just enough information to make a few sensible adjustments, work out a few inconsistencies.

And revisiting that problematic chapter actually turned out to be pretty productive. I could keep part of it, but a lot I just ditched--didn't even save to a "cut file" as I usually do--and wrote over. I am now officially unblocked.

That does not, however, mean that I will be forging ahead with great gusto in the writing. I hope to keep working at least sporadically--perhaps interspersed with whatever I can do to work on class prep. I can work on the online Nature in Lit without knowing the schedule, for instance. (More on that in a minute.) And eventually, the calendar for 2017-18 will have to be disseminated, which will open the door for me to get serious about syllabi for my fall classes.

As for the online class, Paul is going to be teaching something online in the fall, so he's been picking my brain, and William's (William teaches online pretty regularly now)--and I overheard William say to Paul that he should forget about the idea of having two separate deadlines in a week, the way we do for our FTF classes. We're used to read X for Monday and Y for Wednesday, X homework for Monday, Y for Wednesday--but William says that doesn't work for online courses, that one must instead plan for the week. I don't remember what I've done, but I think I was already heading in that direction: two readings, yes, but only one weekly deadline for each portion of the written work the students need to do. But it would be good to double-check on that.

I also should set up a meeting with my distance ed mentor to talk to him about online grading. It would be a good idea to try that out at least a little with my 101s, so I can get the hang of it before teaching fully online--but I'm not sure I want to add that wrinkle to my own process just yet. Fortunately, I don't have to make up my mind right now, and even more fortunately, I don't have to be in any particular rush to meet with the distance ed guy: I can contact him when I know I have to be on campus anyway, like later in June when I'll start with fall adjunct scheduling (assuming we get the finalized lists before I leave town).

Oh, and I got another email from the Tough Cookie, asking about summer classes. Summer one started today. I told her that, but there are also classes in summer two. She again had to whine about how I delivered really bad news. I reminded her that I'd suggested several times that she withdraw, and she opted not to. I'm really getting sick of students acting as if they had no idea they were doing badly when 1. they should have been tracking their own grades and 2. in many cases, I told them their grades were in jeopardy. But no: it's my fault that they felt blindsided. Oh argh.

There's more I could natter about right now, but I can feel my brain turning into pancake batter, so I'll leave any further musings for another post. I leave you all with the content of a message that I got from a good friend who is pursuing some work on metaphor (I was supposed to join him, but unless he gives me specific assignments and deadlines, it isn't going to happen: I don't think like that unless I have to). He sent me the following:
"All expressions (types), it should be added, have characters.
However, the characters of eternal expressions are “constant, ”
that is, they determine the same referential value (content) in all contexts;
only those of demonstratives & indexicals =
non-constant–yielding different referential values (contents) in different contexts."

This is why I am not a scholar, specifically of anything having to do with theory.  All I could think was, "Aren't we supposed to write in such a way that people can understand what the fuck we're talking about??" Shades of my dissertation all over again, reading Butler, Lacan, Saussure, Barthes ... and being utterly bewildered.

Instead, I'm reading a Mary Renault novel. Much better. A person can eat popcorn to a book like that.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The other side of my brain

I really would love to start working on my fall class schedules--just to get a jump start on them, so I don't have to be frantic about them in the weeks just before school starts--but without the official calendar, I really can't. I looked at my own calendar today to see if I could figure out what's likely to happen in terms of adjustments for the Jewish holidays, and there are too many potential variables for me to make a reasonable guess. I don't envy the people on the calendar committee; they have to make sure every class meets the same number of hours (regardless of how many days a week it meets, and taking into considerations any necessary days without classes, such as Thanksgiving), and they need to do so in a way that tries to minimize the shrieking howls of protest from faculty and students. Nevertheless, it's annoying as hell not to have any idea about the fall at least--and I'm also annoyed that an e-mail I sent to a colleague who is on the committee has gone completely unanswered: no automated "out of office" reply, no "I don't have the information," nothing.

In any event, that desire being stymied--but my desire to be active today also being at a very low ebb (partly because of the weather, partly the generalized fatigue I've been complaining about ), I wanted something to do that would feel modestly productive and would require sitting at the computer.

So, after literally several years of ignoring it, I'm dipping my toes back in the creative waters: not just a short story (though I have one of those that I want to rework as well), but the stuff I've been working on that I hope may turn into a novel.

I hesitate to even say that; I certainly don't want to be as definitive as to say "I'm writing a novel." For one thing, I have a really bad track record of starting a longer fictional project and dropping it before I get very far at all. For another, I have set myself quite a challenge here, as it's a historical novel--and for that, I need to know a lot more history than I do.

So, here's the interesting overlap: in order to fill in the gaps of my knowledge (or at least to have enough of an idea that my invention won't cause disdainful rolling of the eyes by anyone who knows the history better than I do), I have to do some research. And so far, my research is turning up a whole hell of a lot of dead ends.

Here's a brief list of the things I want to know:

1. How would a young Hungarian woman of a good family, an unmarried woman of good moral stature, end up being a "mail-order" bride? Or, if that wouldn't happen, how else might she find herself marrying an American man she doesn't know, in a marriage of convenience, on the prairie of North Dakota, just about the time North Dakota achieved statehood?

2. If that young woman's immediate family is dead (no siblings, both parents deceased), how would she get to the U.S. in the first place? Would she be likely to answer an ad for a bride in some kind of publication in Europe, or would she get to the U.S. first, then somehow end up with the husband?

3. How would she learn English--enough to communicate with her American husband?

4. If she didn't go straight from Hungary to North Dakota, what did she do in America before getting to North Dakota?

Here's what I know: the time period I'm looking at was a time when a fair number of Hungarian immigrants arrived in the U.S., but this was a second wave of immigration; the first was made up of people fleeing for political reasons; the wave in which this young woman would arrive would have been immigrating for economic reasons. Hungarian men in the second wave largely came to work in the mines and mills, heavy industry. A lot of them settled in Pittsburgh, which makes sense, given that Pittsburgh was the heart of the steel industry at the time. This is also handy for me, as I know a little about Pittsburgh, having lived near there when I was a kid and having spent my first year as an undergrad there--but I don't know a lot about Pittsburgh in the late 1880s, except that it was filthy, absolutely black with the pollution from burning coal to make steel.

I know that North Dakota became a state in 1889. I know rail lines were multiplying in the state by the 1870s, though the Great Northern Railway (which connected a lot of the lines) wasn't complete until 1889. I know that at the time I'm interested in, and in the part of North Dakota I'm interested in, the main crop would have been "winter" wheat.

I know more stuff--bits and orts from various things I've read--but trying to get from generalized historical knowledge to the kind of veracity of mundane details is highly challenging. I wish I personally knew a historian who would be interested in helping me with that angle of the thing I'm writing (whatever it is). I don't mind if some of the details are merely possible, even if not entirely likely, but--as I said--I don't want to commit any eye-roll worthy blunders of historical reality.

I also realize, in reviewing the bits I've already written, that writing something with huge gaps between stints is a recipe for inconsistencies. I mentioned a pivotal character and event in one chapter whom I had entirely forgotten when I got to the chapter that would pivot on that character and her circumstances. She's not a main character--I don't forget those, though it did take me a while to consistently remember some of their names--but I invented her in order to come up with a plausible solution to the first three questions I asked above. Having forgotten all about her, I invented an entirely different way to resolve the problems in those questions. Neither works, by the way; that's why I'm still looking for information. My imagination is failing to come up with anything that makes sense, so I'm hoping reality will provide a reasonable solution.

The other thing I realize about reviewing bits I've already written is that I am a very harsh critic of my own writing--as a scholar, yes, but more as a creative writer. When I reread my scholarly stuff long after having written, I often have the reaction, "Huh. I didn't realize I could sound so smart." By way of contrast, when I reread some of my creative stuff, I often have the reaction, "Oh, gawd, is that ever soupy and melodramatic. Yuck." But I have enough experience writing (though not publishing) short stories that I know I am capable of writing stuff that is unsoupy and genuinely laden with affect, not sentimentalized crap.

So, I don't know what I'll do in terms of writing anything today. It may be enough for me to make a record of the things I'm thinking about, haven't worked out yet but need to bat around for a while--and to record the sources for some of the information I've found, so I can find it again if need be.

And I will continue to check for that calendar to be ready. Enrollment is scary low at the moment: one student dropped SF, so I'm down to 8 in that--and it's been holding steady at 8 for a good while now--and there is one student in one of my 101s, two students are in the other. I haven't looked to see if the numbers for other classes are higher (probably), but it's also not even June yet, so I don't need to feel nervous about anything. I do wonder, though--I'm sure we all wonder--how the "free tuition" for NY students thing is going to impact our enrollment college-wide.

But for today, I'll noodle around a little more with the writing, then probably collapse on the sofa--again--with a good popcorn read. Can't seem to get quite enough of that sofa time...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A word about "post-partum" blues

It happens every summer. I don't notice so much over the winter break, as there are the holidays as a distraction, and the break is so much shorter, but every May, once commencement is over and I have no particular need to go to campus, my mood takes a nose-dive, and all my typical depression behaviors manifest themselves: it's hard for me to summon the energy even to go downstairs to get the mail; I know I'd feel better to get out and take walks, but the sofa has a powerful gravitational pull that seems to keep me inert; my sleep patterns go wonky; I want to eat all sorts of unhealthy but pleasurable foods in vast quantities; I play endless computer games or do jigsaw puzzles or read "popcorn" books.

And I mope.

I've compared it to a sudden decompression, as if I were a diver who rose to the surface too quickly and got the bends. During the term, I know how much pressure I am under (most of it, I grant you, self-imposed), but the sudden release from it is mentally and physically disconcerting--and uncomfortable.

What I don't tend to be aware of, but what I know to be true, is how much of my social life is centered on campus. I don't even mean my time talking with Paul and William and other colleagues. I mean just in terms of human interactions that keep the mind percolating. I get that from every interaction on campus, from my brief chats with Nina, the woman behind the counter at the snack bar where I get tea (on my non-coffee days), to my work with students, to asking the folks in Advisement how to handle a specific situation. I am a profound introvert (which may sound odd from someone who maintains a blog, but it's true), which is part of why I guard my weekends so fiercely during the term. And the introvert in me is in bliss to have long stretches of days when my only interactions are through electronic media (and my conversations with my cat, which are pretty one-sided--or at least her side tends to be pretty repetitive). I like spending days when I don't talk. I like spending days doing bugger-all nothing (to use an Ed phrase). It's the sudden shift from intense busy-ness to nothing that's hard to navigate.

You might think that after as many years as I've been doing this, it would get easier to manage. I will say at least now I know to expect it. But it still throws me, every time.

Shifting gears, I've been responding to a lot of stuff about education that's been flying around Facebook, and in the process, I've had to recognize that although I am on the edge of becoming bitter and jaded--and at times do a damned good impression of being fully in that state--I am still filled with missionary zeal. I have my crises of faith, but when I remember just how important it is to help students learn to just plain fucking think, to have some kind of critical filters and awareness in order to navigate this world that is filled to overflowing with opinionated ignoramuses, I get charged up and ready to get back into the classroom.

But it's the 101s that call to me for that purpose. I don't know what my experience teaching SF will be like this fall, or how things will go teaching the online Nature in Lit plus SF in the spring, but if those experiences are as frustrating as this past semester's Nature in Lit, I may decide to forego teaching electives and just concentrate on the comps. If I do that, I do need to restructure how I handle the essays, or I'll be too overwhelmed with grading to survive with my faculties intact--but I'm done with 102s for the foreseeable future. I can only fight my battles on one front at a time, and the fight to get students to write a coherent argument is as much as I can do; I can't do that and get them to actually read and analyze literature at the same time.

I am aware that--depending on how long I can continue teaching before I really do burn out--I may well change my mind again (and again, and again). But I have a strong sense what I want to do with 101, and I'm not as clear about 102. So, I'll stick with that for a while.

As for the "how long I can continue teaching" part: who knows. I am going to work very hard not to project too far into the future but just to take the moment that's right in front of me--or the next semester at any rate, but not much further. I know the longer I teach, the more comfortable my retirement will be, so... well, we'll see. I know I'll be at NCC for another year at least. (And Paul says the college isn't going to shut down, and I tend to believe he's right: we're unlikely to lose our accreditation, despite all the running around and waving of hands and shouting, so I don't need to worry about losing my job.) And truly, when I say "I know" I'll be there for another year, that makes the assumption we always make: that things will continue along pretty much as they are. I know that is not always the right assumption: the unexpected is always entirely possible. But we can't plan for the unexpected; we just live on faith that life is going to go along pretty much as it is right now.

And on that faith, I will sign off for today. I don't know if I'll get any work done before my usual Friday afternoon life-maintenance tomorrow, but if I do, I'll post again.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Update on "It's not about the grade"

The student complained to Cathy, saying I was nice but misleading, and that I'm way too harsh and most students dropped my class (which, of course, means that she should get the grade she wants just for making it to the end). I feel sick. I am not exaggerating. I feel sick: angry, self-doubting, vindictive, defensive... it's not a pleasant mix at all.

Cathy very kindly replied to the student, saying the conversation should be between me and the young woman--and I replied, including the student in my reply, saying that I had, in fact, been communicating with the student, openly and with supportive comments. I know Cathy is on my side about it, but I'm having one of those crises of faith. Do I need to change how I grade? Do I need to just say "OK, nobody gets anything lower than a C except in the case of a student who does zero work"?

I am so sick, so heartily sick, of the raging accusations, the personal attacks, that arise out of my grading. I feel like I need to go to one extreme or the other: either "I'll tell it straight: you suck at this" or "Everybody gets gold stars!"


And really, honestly? This is not insignificant in my desire to get the fuck out of the profession ASAP.

OK. I'm done venting. I'll talk to Cathy tomorrow, and I'll look at the student's grade tomorrow--and I'll probably change it (and I have to submit another change of grade, too). Oh, yes: and I just got an email from a student who stopped attending class in February; I'd seen him several times throughout the semester and told him he needed to withdraw. He wants to come in this week to have me sign the withdrawal form. I had to tell him it's too late. I'm waiting for the blow-back on that one.

Get me the fuck out of this.

It's not about the grade, dammit

If I could design my own position, in addition to having fewer students and lots more time, here's what I'd like: I'd like to never, ever have to assign a grade of any kind. I want to evaluate, give feedback, indicate progress--but not give grades. Students see those grades as the sole measure of their success in a semester, when they're the least important part. I say all the time, a student who started the semester earning A's and who ended the semester earning A's probably hasn't learned anywhere near as much as a student who started out earning F's and ending up with a D+.

But I completely understand why students can't see it that way. All they see is that grade--and it does matter, because GPA has a lot to do with where they can go next. And all their lives they've been told they are the grade: You are a B student; you are an A student, whatever. Getting a grade that doesn't conform to that sense of who they are is a shock--even if it's the pleasant shock of getting a higher grade than they anticipate. Getting a lower grade? That's not only a shock, it's a wound: the student has just been told he or she is not as good a human being as he or she has always believed.

I want to drum into their heads: the grade isn't who you are--and the grade certainly isn't a measure of your potential success. But I can't make them feel that reality as much as they feel the weight of that letter. It drives me crazy--and sometimes it breaks my heart. But as long as I have to give grades, I will give grades that I believe accurately reflect the work the student has done in this particular situation. Not who the student is, not what the student may be capable of in a different situation, just what I saw from the work across the 30 classes in which the student was in my classroom. And frequently, I'm the first person in that student's life to say, "This work is about halfway to where it ought to be at this stage in your education," or even "This work is significantly lacking in a lot of what it should contain at this stage in your education." And they're devastated, as if I've said, "You are a worthless human being."

Remember the student who wrote to me, discouraged and disheartened about her grade? I sent her an email--which I thought would be comforting--telling her that I'd re-evaluate her grade when I get to the office tomorrow. I just got another email from her, still wailing about how she is so discouraged, she never wants to take another English class, and I shouldn't bother looking at the grades again because they'll just say the same thing... Although of course there is a level of manipulation in her wailing to me about all this--I'm sure it's not conscious manipulation, but if she weren't hoping for something to change, she wouldn't be wailing to me--I don't think she's wailing so much because she wants me to change the grace but because she wants some comfort.

I just wrote her a long reply, and I hope she takes the time to actually read it. (It's long enough that she may not.) I set out five basic points:

1. The grade is not the measure of success. What she learned is the measure of success.

2. How she did in my class says nothing about how she will do in future English classes--not only because she learned what she did in mine but also because other teachers will evaluate her work differently, and her grades will reflect that difference.

3. Teachers are in a bind at the end of semester and tend to set aside the stuff we know about people's personal lives and just focus on the numbers--but now that I have time to consider, there is more to her grade than just the numbers, and I want to think about that.

4. I'm not just going to recalculate the scores she got. I'm going to reread her final essay, bearing in mind what she's going through, which includes her mother dying.

5. She can decide how to respond to the grade she gets from me: it will only hold her back and stifle her success if she lets it.

I could say a lot more about all of those points--especially the third one, because although we do have a clear sense of what makes sense as a grade for any essay, the holistic grading process allows some latitude for discounting certain kinds of problems and putting more emphasis on certain kinds of successes.

But the whole thing is distressing to me, and it's what set off that rant about grading. Being me, of course I think, "Maybe I need to write up something about that and give it to students at the start of the semester," but honestly, I think it would be more beneficial to come up with a clear list of specific benchmarks: not the rather confusing rubrics I've been using but something more clear to students, maybe with a scale from "serious problem" to "excellent" instead of the dopey "not meeting, approaching, meeting, exceeding" ratings of the SUNY delineations.

In fact, I think that's what I'll work on today. It will feel like work without actually requiring me to deal with course-specific assignments or materials. Hmmmm. We'll see how this goes.