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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Lowering the boom

I looked it up. The etymology is unclear, but the meaning is what I thought: it means to call someone harshly to account, to demand obedience. So, today, I lowered the boom on two students in the 1:00 102.

I think I've explained before that I keep the attendance and grades for each student on an index card; students can ask to see their cards at any point in the semester--and now that I'm grading through accumulated points, I sometimes have the students add up their points to see where they stand, and I distribute their cards so they can check to be sure their records match mine. In the case of the two students in question, I presented each with his card and said, "Tell me what you see." "A lot of O's." "Those are zeroes." I went on to explain that both of them have submitted no work--or so little work that it doesn't count for much. ("And," I added to one of them, "your essay still isn't formatted correctly.") I made clear that to stand any chance of passing the class, each one would have to come to every class, never be late, turn in every assignment, complete everything to the absolute best of his ability--and submit it on time. Even then, the chances of passing the class are pretty damned slim. I did hold out the hope that they might be able to reach C's, though that's a real long shot. (They'd have to get essentially A's for every assignment from here on.) I told them they're grown ups and can decide what they want to do, but they need to do it: either do the work and stay, or, I said, "The next time you come to class without your work, I'll hand you the withdrawal slip."

One looked like he'd just watched his favorite toy get run over by a truck. One looked faintly sheepish but not overly concerned. Ball is firmly in their courts, and I'll be interested to see what they do. My hunch is that I'll see a split decision: one will be smart and withdraw, the other will simply disappear eventually--but I'm not sure who will do which. What would astound me would be if either were to actually come through, come to class, do the work, give it his all to complete the semester. I'm willing to be astounded, but I'd also lay some pretty long odds here.

By way of contrast, a young woman from that class made an appointment to meet with me. She's really struggling, but she's come to see me before, so I have hope. I asked her what she wanted to discuss today, and she said, "How to not fail the class." First thing to do, I explained, is to turn in the work. I won't often fail someone who has truly tried, turned in the work, done her (or his) best. We also talked about how she can do better work, and she had some fine ideas of her own; I didn't have to offer much beyond support of her intentions.

I am struggling with all my classes right now. I bitched about the students in Nature in Lit yesterday. Today, I've been complaining about the fact that--as soon as we get to talking about poetry--suddenly the wheels come off, as if we aren't reading exactly the same way we have up to this point. Yes, what we're reading is fundamentally different--poetry is (usually) markedly unlike prose--but the actual strategy for approaching it is the same: read for details, notice word choices, make connections.

In the earlier class, the students were struggling over three lines in a poem (Li-young Li's "The Gift"), so I suggested they write them out as a sentence. Ah! Comprehension dawns. As one student put it, writing it out without the line breaks allowed him to pull it all together in one idea. Good: now, consider why the line breaks are there. How do they affect the way we read the words in that one idea?

I tried the same exercise with the later class, and it failed miserably. However, with them, I found a way of explaining when we can "go deeper" with something and when something is likely to be literal, no metaphoric dimensions at all: Read the words literally first--and stick with the literal meaning unless other words in the poem (or whatever) lead you to see something more than the literal going on.

I also realized, if I ever teach 102 again, I need to either reconsider the poems I teach or I need to add footnotes to the Patricia Goedicke poem I teach, "In the Ocean," explaining that--at the time when the poem was written, "lame" had only one meaning--the literal, physical meaning (not the slang meaning of being useless or ineffectual)--and that it's important to note the use of the article "an" before the word "invalid." The father in the poem isn't (adjective) invalid (emphasis on the second syllable), but (noun) an invalid (emphasis on the first syllable). Oh! they say. That changes things.... (Um, yeah, I guess it would.)

So. I don't think I have much further to relate about today, this week. I am very aware that now there are four weeks before spring break (four more Mondays, four more Tuesdays...), and after spring break, there are four weeks until end of the semester. Four weeks is nothing. Four weeks is a sneeze, a mouse's heartbeat. Any second now, I'll be running around like my hair is on fire because there's so much to do and so little time. There's a possibility that Tuesday will be a snow-day, too: two of three weather sites are predicting 5-8 inches of snow. (The National Weather Service hasn't weighed in yet.) I would love that: there's room built into the schedule for a missed day before their essays are due, and I would have a little more time in which to grade essays as well as a little break from trying to crowbar them up off the floor.

And on that note, I think I will tie a ribbon around this week and consider it done to a turn. As am I...

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