Saturday, July 19, 2014

Photos, belatedly

I was going to write a proper back-from-Green-Country post a couple of weeks back, but I was about to leave for some islands (blessedly alone) to celebrate getting tenure and surviving my first travel-with-students experience, so I'll just post a few photos in which you can see the many fine shades of greenness that Green Country has to offer.


Yup, that's one of our students up on the wall. Nope, nobody fell off. There were times I felt like it wasn't for want of trying.


And nobody fell off the cliff either, so it was all good.


The sculpture had particular relevance to my class, so I showed an image one day, only to find that the students had already stumbled across it and wondered what it was. I like it when that sort of thing happens.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Texts and contexts


This is our classroom, at least most of the time; it came with enough furniture to seat eight, which was exactly the number we needed. Sometimes we go outdoors, or into the games room at the student apartment complex if we need to use the TV, and my colleague will be holding her class in the pub on Monday. (I plan to do the same for our very last session, once we are back in the capital. I figure the writer we'll be reading that day would have approved.) But most of the time, here we are hanging out in the living room / kitchenette.

And students talk. My God, do they talk. They argue about whether the Revolutionary Poet was a hero or an idiot, and whether the Playwright-and-Memoirist views the rural villagers he writes about as a separate, lesser order of people or whether he really gets them and their culture. They say smart and insightful things about the gender politics of personifying the nation as a woman. They make awesome connections to things they're learning in my colleague's class, despite the fact that her material ends about 700 years before mine begins. Some of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that they are an exceptionally self-disciplined and committed group, as evinced by the fact that they managed to scrape together $5,000 for this trip in the first place. But I also think that we have, quite accidentally, stumbled upon the ideal setting and context for a college class, and achieved something that is supposed to happen but very rarely does: students are talking to each other as much as to me, and they feel comfortable enough around each other to take up opposing positions. And there are too few of them to hide behind each other and let a tiny minority do most of the talking. It probably also helps that we have drunk beer, scrambled over rocks, and wandered through cow pastures together, all of which tend to dispel any notions that professors are a separate species.

I wish there were some way to bottle this atmosphere and bring it back with us. Maybe if we capped all of the courses at ten and installed comfy couches in every classroom, that would be a start; but I think you also need the sort of group bonding that comes through shared experience, and I don't think there is any way to make that happen artificially. (I realize that the "learning communities" trend is supposed to achieve this, but I'm skeptical about whether it actually works.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Across the pond...


We are in Green Country, which is green as advertised. Thus far, things have gone reasonably well; at least, we made it from the US to Green Country, spent three busy and hectic days in the capital, and took the bus across the country without losing anybody or having any massive failures of planning. We may have thrown a few too many activities and tours at the students at once -- I'm not sure they took in as much as they should -- and I think we will almost certainly be looking for a different hostel in the capital if we do this again, or even apartments if we ever do this without being on a shoestring budget. (Yeah, right.) At any rate, we are now settled into our spacious, blessedly quiet new digs -- apartments in a massive student housing complex -- in a much smaller and less frenetic city, and are ready to start classes tomorrow. (It gladdened my heart to see four of our students seated around the common-room table at about eleven o'clock last night, earnestly reading modern Greenish drama. I think that we will have an enjoyably nerdy time.)

Also, it is cool seeing their horizons expand. They made friends with a German girl on the walking tour we took on the first day, and also an American who was on his way to study in Germany, and almost immediately started talking about how they wanted to go to Germany. This, in a group where two of our six traditionally-aged students had never been on a plane before we left. So yay, this is how it is supposed to go.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Four days 'til Green Country ...

Well, more like three and a half, I guess. This time four days from now we will be jammed into our airline seats for a long overnight flight, and this so does not feel real yet. In a week's time, I will be getting ready to teach a class that is totally new to me and SO far outside of my area of expertise. That part doesn't feel real either. I don't have much of a plan other than "we will read a bunch of books and poems that I think are interesting, and talk about them." (Which is, admittedly, about as much of a plan as I ever have for class, but most of the time I'm teaching material I've taught before, and also most of the time I have access to a whiteboard and a projector, which I won't on this trip.)

Also, sometime in between now and then, I really need to organize masses of paperwork, and also print off all of the online readings for my class for our 78-year-old auditor who doesn't do computers. (Who is going to be a pain in the ass, by the way. I was afraid of this from the beginning, but I was trying to keep an open mind because we really needed more warm bodies on this trip, but honest to God, this woman has basically stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play, and I don't even like Tennessee Williams characters when they are on the stage. By intermission I am always wishing that everyone in the play would Just. Shut. Up. Already.)

So I am worried about being in for a month of Just. Shut. Up. Already, and also worried about all the other interpersonal drama that goes along with ten people spending a month in close quarters. Travel with other people is always so stressful, and part of me really just wants to grab the backpack and run of to Bucharest or something, alone. And I really want the students to have a good time, and will feel guilty if they don't.

(This is making it sound like I regret having decided to do the trip. I don't -- or at any rate, I don't think I will. There will assuredly be good theater and good seafood involved, so there is no way this can be a total loss, and I think it will be cool seeing Green Country with students, for whom it will all be new.)

And hey, even if it is an absolute disaster, at least there is no chance I will lose my job over it. 'Cos you know what? As of this week, I have tenure.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Translations, Part V: What the Grades Really Mean

A+: This is the very rare paper that makes me dance around my apartment and shout. Also, it means I can knock off grading for the rest of the evening, because why spoil the glow?

A: This is genuinely very good indeed.

A-: This is interesting and insightful, but not polished. Or it is very polished, but not at all interesting. Oh, who am I kidding? It's really more of a B+, but see below.

B+: No good can come of this grade. Try not to assign it.

B: This has some facets that I can genuinely praise, but as a whole the paper is not quite ... there ... in ways that I will find almost impossible to articulate, and will write about half a page attempting to explain. The student, however, will be satisfied, and will not read that half-page.

B-: This is a strictly average paper, masquerading as an above-average one. But at least the student is genuinely trying very hard.

C+: This student may also be trying, but has hit a glass ceiling because the writing mechanics are so appalling; OR, this is an A student who is not trying at all.

C: A below-average grade masquerading as an average one. The paper has some vague glimmerings of promise, but a lot more wrong with it, which I will spend at least a full page attempting to explain. None of my comments will be read, and the next paper will be exactly the same.

C-: This is really more of a D, but I would greatly prefer not to have this student again next semester.

D+: This is more or less the right length, sort of on topic, and not plagiarized. It has no other redeeming features whatsoever.

D: This is way too short, but NO NO PLEASE DON'T MAKE IT LONGER.

D-: This is the kind of paper that makes one want to add insult to injury.

F+: A special grade, reserved for a paper that would have earned a B, but was turned in nine days late.

F: The easiest grade to assign, since the paper either was never turned in, or was copied from Shmoop.com. In the former case, the student will not argue; in the latter, there will be a long and complicated story about how the paper was typed at the student's great-aunt's house and the great-aunt sneaked in while the student was asleep, added the plagiarized bits, and then uploaded the whole thing to Shmoop.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Exoticized

So, this fairly well-known pundit from a national magazine has just been to Deep South State, and has been blogging about his visit here. I mean right here. You can see the sign to Misnomer U. in one of his photos.

He seems to have liked the place, which is good, I guess. Still, it feels odd, seeing pictures of the place where one lives at National Magazine's website, and reading about how surprised Fairly Well-Known Pundit is that you can actually get decent beer around here. There is a strong undercurrent of This Is Real America, "real America" being defined as "places where people who write for National Magazine don't live." (There is not really any indication in the blog posts that writers and artists and professors do live here, although there is a whole lot about our local steel mill. Also, no particular indication that Fairly Well-Known Pundit expects anyone living here to read his stuff, although of course we have been; my colleagues have been sharing them all over Facebook.)

I feel a little ... exoticized. Maybe more so because I grew up in the world inhabited by National Magazine's target demographic, which is, basically, upper-middle-class urban east-coasters. My dad subscribes. Shoot, I won their cryptic crossword contest once when I was a teenager. And now it seems that I live in a place that is very, very strange to most National Magazine readers, and of course I knew I was leaving the world where I grew up behind when I chose this career (it is fair to say that was part of the attraction), but it's being brought home to me how far behind I've left it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bianca and Kate: a Misnomer U story

I've been in two minds about whether to post about this, but about a month and a half ago, one of our study abroad students -- I'll call her Bianca -- started making noises about possibly having to withdraw from the trip. This alarmed us considerably, since we were already at minimum numbers. Bianca offered no further explanation, but her friend, Kate, eventually turned up in my co-leader's office to explain that Bianca's family was in grave financial difficulty, and that while she had been able to scrape together (just) enough to make the payments, she wasn't sure she'd be able to buy textbooks, food, or anything else while we were away. To compound matters, some of her family were opposed to her spending money on what they saw as a luxury.

Bianca is a good student, but very quiet. Kate is the opposite, loud and brash and confident. It appeared that Kate had actually lent Bianca some of the money that she had been using to make the payments. Bianca, she explained, never got to do fun things like this, and Kate didn't really need the money right now. I don't know Kate's exact background, but I went out for tapas with her and her uncle once (because that is the sort of thing that happens sometimes at small colleges), and they struck me as probably very comfortably upper-middle-class. Kate, I think, had an upbringing that lent her a much more expansive sense of what is possible, and surmised that the faculty might be able to do something about Bianca's situation if they knew about it. And -- again because this is the sort of thing that happens at small colleges -- she was absolutely correct. We went to the Dean, who is AWESOME and immediately offered to buy the books himself, and to the chair of my department (because Bianca is one of our majors, but also because my chair knows everybody and can pull a lot of strings). They swung into action, and the upshot is that Bianca should have a fair chunk of emergency-scholarship money coming to cover her living expenses. Happy ending. (The sum of money, I should note, is in the three-digit range -- the sort of amount that seems big when you're a college student but laughably small later in life.)

So, a couple of things about this story: First, of course, it wouldn't happen at a state flagship university. You need to be at a place with a short enough chain of command, and a dean who knows individual students, and is willing to go to bat for them. You also need a few people who see travel, and all those other little enriching experiences, as an integral part of educating students. So, not the kind of thing that happens at a totally no-frills institution either, although I think no-frills colleges serve a useful purpose.

But more than all that, this story doesn't have a happy ending without Kate. And that, I think, is the real virtue of an institution like ours -- a public liberal arts college, not super-exclusive but academically solid. We're accessible to the Biancas, but we're also attractive to the Kates, and we're small enough that they'll meet up and befriend each other instead of stratifying into their own little cliques by the end of freshman orientation. And when students from different backgrounds come together, some pretty awesome things can happen. But it seems to me that they happened more often a generation ago, and are likely to happen less in the future -- because there are such big, class-based differences in colleges people aspire to attend in the first place, and as tuition goes up and up, the message from the media is increasingly becoming elites to the fancy R1s, plebes to the community colleges and for-profits, nothing in the middle.

But for now? We have a little space where the Biancas and Kates can and do meet, and where there are several people committed to making sure Bianca gets the chance to travel outside of the country for the first time in her life. And I'm proud to work in that little space. That is something.