Sunday, December 4, 2011

musings on the new comp textbook

We're getting a new textbook in Comp next semester. This means overhauling the Basic Comp course, which might not be a bad thing because I don't think what I'm doing now is working very well. (I think I will have them write actual essays and business letters and stuff from the beginning of the class, instead of starting with paragraphs. Because really, who writes a paragraph in isolation? I also think I might scrap most of the rhetorical-analysis stuff, since I'm starting to feel like I don't even know why I emphasize it so much, except that it was what we did in Basic Comp at the University of Basketball. And the students have trouble analyzing how a newspaper op-ed piece works; half of them are at the point where they're still trying to make sense of what it says, and none of them are used to going that meta.)

But anyway: the new book. It's ... different. I'm used to teaching with a no-nonsense handbook, the sort of text that explains what thesis statements are, gives examples of every conceivable citation style, and has a handful of sample essays by strong student writers, but pretty much leaves professors and students on their own as to content. But this new book is kind of a semi-handbook and semi-reader; it has all of these essays on assorted topics by professional writers, everyone from Dave Barry to Amy Tan, and I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to do with the essays. Presumably they are not meant to be used as models, since the writing is too polished to be a reachable model for most students, and neither the style nor the subject matter resembles a typical college paper. Are the students supposed to be writing about them, then? What are they supposed to be saying about them?

Also, I find myself vaguely distrusting the new book because it has too many colored pictures, the typeface is too big, and there are footnotes defining words like "literal," "ambiguous," "Rubik's Cube," and "horrific." It feels, in short, like a K-12 text and not a college-level one. (This isn't actually a problem in Basic Comp, which pretty much is a K-12-level course, but I feel like it would be vaguely insulting to spring this text on regular freshman comp students. But then, I was the sort of kid who habitually took offense at notes explaining the meaning or pronunciation of words, even when I was in elementary school, and I don't know that this is necessarily a normal reaction.)

Growf. I think I have a hard time coping with change.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Norton Anthology is dead, long live the Norton Anthology

So, it appears that yet another edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature is on its way. I'm not too sure how I feel about that. Didn't the last one come out only about five years ago? I remember being taken by surprise when I started my first full-time job and realized the one I used in grad school had been replaced.

No more A Room of One's Own, at least not in its entirety. Hello Mrs. Dalloway, instead. No more bringing the Joan Baez CD to class so we can all listen to Mary Hamilton; no more comparing the lists of women writers included in three different editions of the Norton. I'm sure we'll find some other stuff to talk about with Mrs. Dalloway -- who is, for a moment, very nearly a stranger. I don't even remember whether I liked her or not when I was twenty. I suppose I will find out whether I like her now.

No more "Song: Men of England," another piece with a nice musical tie-in.

No more pairing Brian Friel's Translations with Eavan Boland's That the Science of Cartography is Limited. Both gone from the new edition, I shall miss them both. I remember the first time I taught them together, in a classroom with a neglected set of school maps from the mid-twentieth-century shoved in one of the corners. I remember pulling them out of the corner, on an impulse, flipping from map to map, English and French Colonies, Westward Expansion, and Civil War. Asking students what they noticed about the stories the maps told, and the stories they didn't tell. I will miss the end of Translations, with Hugh reading from the Aeneid as the lights go out: as powerful an argument for why stories matter as any I know.

My current Brit Lit II class seems to be left cold by most of these texts, by the way. (They were even left cold when I tried to repeat the map trick; maybe it has to be an ad hoc thing.) Maybe that's just as well; I would have liked my last time teaching them to be filled with fireworks and spark, but this way, I may regret the loss less.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Burnt out on Basic

I know I suck at blogging lately. I think this is just not going to be a very good year. For the first half of the semester, I had five different classes to juggle. Now I have only four, but one of them is a section of Basic Comp with twenty-five students. This class is a complete time-and-intelligence suck, and I don't feel like I'm even doing anything useful. Mainly, I am repeating myself over and over for the benefit of people who cannot seem to figure out the bleeding obvious.

(For example: You should staple or paper-clip your papers instead of turning in a bunch of loose sheets. You should put your name on your paper. You should turn the paper in at the beginning of class on the day when it is due. You can find out when it is due by checking the syllabus. If you don't have the paper with you during class on the due date and you decide to bring it by the professor's office two hours later, only to find that she is teaching another class, DO NOT INTERRUPT THAT CLASS. Don't be rude to the person who gives out grades. Do not put your head down on the desk and suck your thumb during class. Do not type your papers in ALL CAPS. If the assignment asks you to evaluate an op-ed article from a newspaper, addressing how effectively the author makes his or her argument, and we have spent the last three days of class talking about what this means and looking at examples of possible thesis statements, do not simply summarize the article. Do not write about an article with words you don't understand in the title, unless you are prepared to look them up. Do not write about a news article that does not take an argumentative position. Do not write about an evangelical Christian web site. Do not write about a blog entry about a culinary gadget that electrocutes lobsters.)

Seriously. I feel like I'm spending my entire life telling people what not to do, and if I do this for another fifty years I still won't hit all the things they shouldn't do. I mean, it would never in my wildest dreams have occurred to me that someone would try to turn in a paragraph about a lobster-electrocutor. (Cue this classic bit of snark from Rate Your Students. This, friends, is Basic Comp in a nutshell.)

So, yeah, feeling pretty burnt out right now. (It will be better in the spring, when this class is tiny and I usually get to know the students well enough to be generous with them. It takes time to be generous.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How it went...

Wow, time is passing quickly this semester. We just had our last small-group meeting in Intro to College life. They have one more session in the Big Auditorium, and then final grades are due, and we're done.

It was OK. I'm not sure whether I'm going to do it again. The students were fine, all five of them friendly and participatory. They did most of the extra reading I assigned even though it wasn't tied to any quizzes or papers (although I think I will ask them to respond to it in their journals if I teach this course again -- I don't think they really got that a reflective journal for a class is supposed to be different from a personal diary). They had a bit of a tendency to talk about their personal lives a lot and go off on random tangents, but I think there's supposed to be room for that sort of thing in a course like this, so no worries.

The large-group sessions were ... bleah. I guess the kindest way to put it is "varied," since there were some speakers who were genuinely informative about useful topics, and one or two who managed to be informative and entertaining. But there were also some speakers who were patently disorganized, inept at communicating, or just plain off the rails (as in, presenting as fact a pop-psychology "personality test" with about as much as scientific validation as astrology, and pretending that this was somehow educating students about diversity).

More generally, I'm concerned that the whole slate of presentations seemed to emphasize student life at the expense of saying anything about the university's intellectual mission. I mean, it is important for students to know where to find the counseling center, and how to get their financial aid checks, and what to do if they think one of their friends has alcohol poisoning. No question. But shouldn't someone, at the very least, also be telling them that they should plan to spend a couple of hours outside of class for each hour in class, and that those required gen ed courses can illuminate one another in surprising ways, and that they shouldn't be afraid of going to a professor's office hours? I want someone to tell them, too, that words and ideas matter, that slow reading and deep thinking have value, that skepticism and critical inquiry are necessary tools for living in the world, and that if universities were really ivory towers closed off from the real world, people wouldn't get so damn angry at them.

(I think I may have told my little cohort some of these things. I think I do want to teach this class again.)

Oh yeah, and we talked about the university's common reading book, which was both enjoyable and a little weird. I have a whole different set of reservations about campus-wide common reading programs, but those probably belong in an entirely different post.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I don't think I like courses designed by committee

I'm meeting with my Intro to College Life freshmen* for the first time tomorrow. Well, we met for a hot second last week, but since the mandatory presentation in the Big Auditorium took up 35 of the 50 minutes of class, and then I had to find my students in the crowd, we didn't really have time to say much to each other.

Anyway, I have been reading over the syllabus and now I kind of want to shoot it. There is a half-page-long list of Course Goals and Learning Objectives**, including such items as "Students will clarify their values about cultural and gender diversity" and "Students will manage finances, time, and stress effectively" (is clarifying values like clarifying butter? and has there ever been an eighteen-year-old in the entire history of the world who has managed finances, time, and stress effectively?) Good God. I hope they don't think I wrote this stuff.

The course is described as "a series of freshman seminars focusing on a variety of topics," although in fact more than half of the meetings are being held in the Big Auditorium with speakers who talk at the entire freshman class for fifty minutes and show powerpoints. Which kind of makes me think the person who wrote the course description doesn't know what a seminar is.

But! The rest of the class meetings are mine, and I think we can dispatch the official topic for tomorrow's session ("Navigating College Online") in about five minutes, which leaves us loads of time to talk about why we have college and about enlightenment. (Why yes, I did sneak some actual reading assignments onto the syllabus.) And maybe the students will get to, you know, say stuff, as should happen in a seminar.

I feel so subversive. Don't tell the administrators.

* Freshwomen, actually, since all five of them are female. This isn't particularly unusual given Misnomer U's demographics, but I do wonder if it's a sign that we're having trouble recruiting men to the humanities.

** What is with the fad for including Learning Objectives on everything, anyway? Do students actually want them? Do any of them read that part of the syllabus? For whose benefit is this supposed to be?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sonnet for a new semester

Some time back, I asked my lit survey students to define a sonnet on the final exam. One of them wrote -- this was her entire definition -- "Fourteen lines syllabus."

So I wrote a poem. Which I would now like to share.

Fourteen Lines Syllabus

Come to class – or not – but if you come, stay seated.
You with the iPhone, time to get offline!
The revolution, folks, will not be tweeted;
There are no phones in 1789.

Well, yes, you really have to buy the book,
And read, and think ... Why, yes, I am a nerd.
Hey, business major with the pissed-off look:
The Blessed J. H. Newman wants a word.

Exams, grades, course goals, papers, all that stuff:
Please read those sections over at your leisure.
“There will be time indeed, and time enough.”
For now? I’d have you take some time for pleasure.

Oh! Welcome, all, to English 202.
That’s it! Read Blake before we meet anew.

Unfortunately, I think this might be better than my actual syllabus.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Attention, students. This section of English 100, Basic Writing, is currently in an oversold situation. We are looking for twenty volunteers willing to take a later section of the course. You will receive a voucher that will entitle you to sleep in three days a week. If your educational plans today are flexible, please speak with a gate agent professor at once.

Attention, students. This section of English 100, Basic Writing, is currently in an oversold situation. You might have noticed that there are forty students in this room and ONLY THIRTY-TWO FUCKING CHAIRS. We are looking for twenty volunteers willing to take a later section of the course. You will receive a voucher that will entitle you to sleep in three days a week, as well as your own desk and chair. We'll even fill out all the add / drop paperwork for you. If your educational plans today are flexible, please speak with a gate agent professor at once. Also, please note that the word "Basic" in the title of this course is a euphemism. It means "remedial." If your ACT English score is over 18, or if you have already successfully completed English 101, YOU ARE NOT REMEDIAL. Please get out of the way so people who actually need this course can take it.

Attention, students. This section of English 100, Basic Writing, is currently in an oversold situation. Meanwhile, the section of Intro to College Life for prospective humanities majors has only FIVE students. No, I don't know why the admissions office thought we needed forty remedial writing students and only five freshmen interested in majoring in the humanities. Maybe that was all they could find. Anyway, it isn't your fault, but it depresses me. Meanwhile, we are still looking for twenty volunteers. If your educational plans today are flexible, please speak with a gate agent professor at once...


Monday, August 15, 2011

Voyage to the Antipodes, Part Two: Awesome Australian Animals

Of all the things I saw on my voyage, I liked the kangaroos the best. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, as kangaroos have been my favorite animal ever since I first had Winnie-the-Pooh read to me at the age of three. So I was pleased to discover that they are, in fact, very personable animals, and curious about people.

This is the "Yeah? What are you staring at?" stare, which they have down to perfection.

Grazing on the lawn:

An emu. Emus, I can confirm, are not such nice animals, but they're fun to stare at.

And here is a koala, doing what koalas do best:

There were also many, many gorgeous parrots of various kinds. It was really amazing seeing all of these birds that I'd never seen outside of a pet shop.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Voyage to the Antipodes, Part 1

Hi, everyone! I haven't abandoned this blog. I have been on a Voyage to the Antipodes.

I saw lots of pretty rocks:

I even brought home one of my own:

(More pics to come; Blogger seems to be acting grumpy when I try to upload too many at once.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I've really been a neglectful blogger lately, I know. (Somehow, one's third year on the tenure track is not fraught with the level of drama that the job search was, or even the first year. And that is probably just as well.)

But! It is Bob Dylan's 70th birthday today, so that seems a fine occasion for a gratuitous music-spam post. (And this IS SO related to the ostensible subject matter of this blog; you see, the thing that blows me away about Dylan is the same thing that blows me away about Shakespeare. It's the sheer variety, and versatility, and the ability to twist a phrase that is both unexpected and just right.) So: eight favorite songs, in no particular order.

1) Love Minus Zero / No Limit. Bringing It All Back Home was the first album I ever bought. (On cassette tape, for $4.99, from the bargain bin at Sam Goody's. And God, I'm starting to feel old.) I loved it all, but especially this track, which seemed to speak of this whole grown-up world (out in New York City or somewhere, before I was born) that I wanted so much to have been a part of.

2) One Too Many Mornings. Another song that takes me straight back to high school: a snow day this time, flakes drifting slowly down over the concrete-block buildings of a suburb built in the '70s, and cigarette smoke curling upward.

3) Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. (Can't find the original version from Blood on the Tracks, but this cover by Joan Baez is nice.) Love the surreal Old West feel of this one, as well as the fact that it seems to be a sort of revenge tragedy.

4) Shooting Star. This song always makes me think of a boy named Caleb who I knew in high school. He was one of those kids who had that certain air of cool about them, so I don't think he and I exchanged more than a dozen words, but I noticed him because he loved Dylan and the Dead, and went about in tie-dyes and dreadlocks, and was reassuring proof that you could be cool and still be your own person.

He died a few years after we graduated. Suicide, apparently triggered by schizophrenia. I wish I had told him that I admired him, that he was one of the people who gave me hope that adult life would be better.

5) Chimes of Freedom. (Again, a cover version since I couldn't find the original, but the Byrds' version absolutely soars, for all that I regret the loss of the middle verses.) Possibly one of the most gorgeous songs ever written.

6) Jokerman. Because no list like this is complete without one full-on apocalypse song.

7) Every Grain of Sand. Emmylou Harris's version, which was the one I fell in love with first. (Godless, secular humanist that I am, I'm not sure why I love this one so much, but there's something about the idea of taking stock, of weighing what one's life has been and meant, that always gets to me.)

8) Mississippi. This is rapidly becoming the theme song to my life. Which is probably not so good, as I think it's a song about getting older and realizing how many choices you've closed off for yourself; but it is also a song about making the best of the ones you've got left, and that's something.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

graduation blogging

-- One of the stranger aftereffects of having been a Girl Scout is that you can never resist singing "My reindeer flies sideways, yours flies upside down / My reindeer is pea-gree-en, your reindeer is brown" under your breath whenever anyone plays "Pomp and Circumstance." Goodness, I hope I wasn't audible.

-- The guy next to me certainly was audible. Dude, I get it, you have a very nice tenor voice, but you don't need to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" five times louder than everyone else. Also, I'm pretty sure it is not appropriate to put on a British accent for that particular song.

-- Dear State Commissioner of Higher Education, I appreciate your efforts to keep things short, but a graduation speech should consist of something slightly more inspirational than information about the university cribbed straight from the website and statistics about how much your median earnings go up if you have a bachelor's degree. Especially if a significant number of your own faculty are making roughly $5,000 less than the average for people with bachelor's degrees. This is called adding insult to injury.

-- "To whom much is given, much is expected" is not actually grammatical. I'm pretty sure there's supposed to be an "of those" at the beginning of that sentence.

-- Wow, one of my former students looks almost exactly like the actor who plays Berowne in the Globe Love's Labour's Lost. I didn't realize it until I saw him in his graduation gown. (He kind of has the Berowne attitude, too.)

-- People who cheer, shriek, and shout out graduates' names when they've already been told to hold their applause need to be suppressed like guinea pigs. Yes, I get that you're proud of your son / daughter / other relative / friend, but they are not so much more special than all the other graduates that you get to interrupt the ceremony. (Also, on a catty note, I couldn't help noticing that these are hardly ever people who are graduating cum laude, and I wonder if there's a certain subtext of "congratulations, we can't believe you finally made it through" behind some of the noisier celebrations.)

For all that, I kind of like graduation. There's something special about all the ceremony, and the ridiculously archaic costumes, and the way the faculty line of march starts off totally confused and then turns dignified, somewhere between the Humanities building and the auditorium.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Exam week bullets

-- Exam week schedules always discombobulate me, and I think I am degenerating into the stereotypical absent-minded professor at an alarming rate. I almost gave an exam to the wrong freaking class today. I walked into the room at what I thought was the correct time, and was surprised to see that the seats were filled with about twice as many students as I was expecting, and they were (mostly) the wrong ones. Fortunately, it turns out that the actual exam time for my class is tomorrow and not yesterday. Whew. Now I just have to get through the next two days, which will include giving the real exam for that class, proctoring a different exam for one of my colleague's classes, and keeping appointments for two students to take make-up exams. Oh, and taking my car in for repairs. I'm going to be so confused.

-- I had a dream last night in which I was teaching Northanger Abbey in Brit Lit II, and then I woke up and read this, and now I really want to teach Northanger Abbey. I can't do it in the fall because I already ordered North and South, but maybe the next semester after that? Would it be bad to go way out of chronological sequence and read Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story" first, since that strikes me as a way better introduction to what Gothic fiction is all about than the two tiny, out-of-context slivers of Radcliffe in the Norton Anthology? And as long as I'm going crazy with the sequence, should I follow it all up with Stoppard's Arcadia?

-- It's a gorgeous day, clear and crisp and faintly magnolia-scented, and I so don't want to grade. I don't even want to grade the three remaining Shakespeare papers, which are probably all going to be quite good, and I REALLY don't want to grade the rest of the comp papers, which almost all suck. (Seriously, did it occur to any of these students that the reason why we did annotated bibliographies right before the final papers is that they would be expected to, you know, cite sources? Or that if I suggest a change after reading a draft, it would be a good idea to MAKE that change before they turn in the final version? Based on the papers I have read so far, I think the answers are "no" and "no.")

Monday, April 18, 2011


I have had ENOUGH of my freshman comp class, with the exception of five students. Two of those five are perfectly ordinary freshmen who just didn't get around to taking English 101 until the spring for some reason; the other three are my three strongest Basic Comp veterans. Everybody else in the class has either flunked English 101 at least once before, or passed Basic with a C because I'm a soft touch. Believe me, I am now regretting being a soft touch.

One of my former Basic students still cannot be bothered to capitalize her own NAME (and no, she is not pulling an e.e. cummings or bell hooks; it's just straight-up carelessness). Another one just decided, in a spectacular act of academic dishonesty, to fabricate an entire annotated bibliography. (Because this student does not seem to read much, and thus has no idea what information actual books are likely to contain, she was fairly easy to catch. No, I don't believe that our campus's current parking policies, including the specific color codes for faculty/staff, student, and visitor spaces, are described in a book entitled Chaos: Parking that was supposedly published by Penguin in 1987. But I have to give her props for imagination.)

I swear, I think teaching English 101 in the spring should come with hazard pay. I have just commented on a pile of ten drafts, exactly two of which were doing more or less what the assignment asked the students to do. The others were all somewhere off in la-la land, despite the fact that the class had been given extremely straightforward instructions and a model. I have been using this assignment for eight years. 90% of the freshmen in my fall classes get it right as soon as they've seen an example. Spring freshmen end up being hopelessly, hopelessly confused.

I cut the research paper from my syllabus this semester, in favor of a "respond to a single source, including properly-documented quotations, paraphrase and summary" assignment (followed by a revision day in the computer lab to make sure they all got it right). I just couldn't face the research paper. I feel guilty, like I'm giving these students a watered-down version of the course, and I know it's not fair to the five who could learn how to write a perfectly decent research paper, but so be it. Sometimes, I think, you have to save your sanity.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

weirdness you find out at conferences

Apparently, it is not the best idea to post career-related things to Blogger when you are not completely sober. Who knew?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

a paradox

1) Students whose ACT scores are low enough place into Basic Writing, Basic Math, and / or Basic Reading. Students who are in two or more of the above also take a three-credit Learning Skills course. If they're in all three, that's full-time status right there.

2) None of these classes are considered "college level," so they do not count for credit toward graduation. For this reason, grades in these classes do not factor into the student's GPA.

3) Therefore, it is pretty much impossible for a student who never actually manages to PASS any of these classes to flunk out of college, or even to end up on academic probation.

Something is wrong with this picture, yes?

Sunday, March 27, 2011


The Friends of the Library held their semi-annual book sale this weekend. I always like it when I get home with the books and discover traces of their previous lives:

David, I am sure, must have been a perfectly charming houseguest! Here are a few more of my favorite inscriptions:

The Old Dramatists: Webster, first printed 1857, picked up in a used book shop in University of Basketball town. Allan H. Gilbert, the meticulous annotator whose notes are at the left, was also the prior owner of my copy of James Shirley; a still older owner (John somebody?) has signed his name at the right:

The Diary of Mr. Pepys. I was also in grad school when I acquired this one, during the course of a delightful and impecunious summer wandering around the UK. Inscription at top left reads "HONOURS PRIZE SENIOR CAMBRIDGE (SCHOOL CERT.) 1930. Below Eric WR Warm's name is what appears to be his entire genealogy.

Sonnets from the Portuguese, bought at the Bruton Parish Church book sale in Williamsburg, VA, in 1997 or 1998. I find this one tantalizingly poignant, and have always wondered about the story behind it.

The Student's Catullus, bought secondhand at the Beloved Alma Mater's bookstore. (Unlike the others, I do in fact know the person who wrote this one. Ah, good times.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

RBOStill not dead yet

-- Haven't heard back about Intro to College Life. I'm definitely interested, but I have a feeling I may have blown the quasi-interview with the administrator in charge of the program by saying that a session on the Honor Code should be part of the course. Admin seems to think that all mentions of the Honor Code are automatically punitive. I think that the only way to get students to take it seriously is to introduce it in a context where it's not punitive, where you can reinforce the idea that it's their code and something to be proud of. But I am just an idealistic hippie chick, and the Beloved Alma Mater is almost a thousand miles from here.

-- SAA paper: nearly done. Kzoo paper: SO not started. (Any of y'all going to either or both, by the way?)

-- Misnomer U. is making its first tenure-track hire in the humanities in three years. It's odd seeing the process from the other side; I am not actually on the search committee, but I got to tag along for dinner with the candidates, and it was hard to remember that "dinner with a friend and an interesting new person" for me is "nerve-wracking potentially life-changing event" for them. Anyway, I am SO glad I don't have to be the one choosing between them, because they are both excellent, and I think I would feel painfully guilty about making the call. I hope whichever one we don't hire finds something good.

-- New York was awesome. Loved it. Need to do this kind of thing mid-semester more often.

-- It is short-sleeve weather in Deep South Town; for good, I hope. The trees are coming out in buds that look like fine red mist from a distance.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Intro to College Life"-type courses

I think I may have been roped into teaching Intro to College Life next fall. Well, I sort of volunteered, but I haven't absolutely committed myself yet. This is a one-credit, pass / fail course that meets once a week, and a good number of the sessions seem to be taken up with mandatory presentations on Study Tips and Stress Management and that sort of thing. There's also a (tiny) community service component and a requirement that students attend a couple of cultural experience on campus, and I think there's also a discussion of the common reading book somewhere in there.

I'm trying to make up my mind. On the one hand, I like teaching freshmen; I like talking with them about the purpose of college and the idea of a liberal arts education, and I'm not teaching freshman comp next semester, so I won't get to do that in my regular classes. On the other hand, it sounds like the sort of course that would involve a lot of record-keeping (which I am not good at), and at worst, might also involve really bored students who resent having to take what amounts to a semester-long freshman orientation (I have some sympathy for this position). I'm not sure what to expect, never having taught such a course before.

Have any of the rest of you taught a course like this? How was it?

Friday, January 28, 2011

on the luxury of small classes

I am SO loving my classes this semester! Well, maybe not freshman comp, because freshman comp in the spring is always a painful slog, made more painful by the fact that about half my students this semester were in my Basic Comp class last semester. They imprint on professors, it seems, and it is like being followed around by a particularly clueless flock of ducklings. (Actually, about half of the Basic veterans seem like they're swimming tolerably well on their own, even if they tend to wobble a bit more than the others, which makes me feel good. The other half, however, are doing the freshman-English equivalent of trying to swim upside down and getting duckweed wrapped around their necks.)

But! The other three classes are a delight, and this includes Basic. I have only five students, and two of them flunked for nonattendance / missing assignments last semester and do not seem to have learned anything from the experience. So in practical terms, I think I'm going to end up with three. In the fall there were 21, and I had no time to give any of them the kind of help they needed. I think I actually like teaching remedial comp when I have only a handful of students. It's different in kind, not just degree, and it becomes much more about mentoring these students and rooting for them and much less about crowd control. I have more patience. And more creativity.

In Brit Lit II, I have eleven students on the class rolls (down from 26 in the fall). Ten, really, since one of then never showed up. And they are a delightful, talkative bunch (and mostly pretty insightful in the stuff they say). I don't understand why it is that you get dead silence when you throw a question out to a class of 26, and everyone talking at once when you have a class of 10, but I'm not gonna question it.

The Shakespeare class feels similarly charged, and even more on the ball in terms of saying smart stuff. Fifteen in that class, including one totally fabulous auditor. Freshman comp is my big class, with an enrollment of eighteen.

I am loving this so much (and feeling a bit guilty for loving it, because I know it's not sustainable and maybe not good news for my long-term survival in this job). But it's how education should be, God knows, and I'm so glad that for right now, this semester, it is.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


So, while I was away over Christmas, Deep South Town got a THAI RESTAURANT!!! (Excuse me, this is the sort of news that requires capital letters and lots of exclamation points.) I got takeaway today (two meals' worth, figuring I could stretch the leftovers out to three), so now I have a fridge full of drunken noodles and green curry. How awesome is that?

Maybe we will get an Indian restaurant someday. That would be excellent.

In other news, I'm going to New York in three weeks. This is kind of a loony thing to do in mid-semester, especially since I have to fly out of a city two hours away, but I decided I was fated to see Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, because why would they have extended the run if the gods didn't want me to see it? Awesome.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

musings about majors

So, as everyone reading academic blogs knows already, the news story of the week is that Our Children Is Not Learning. Unless, of course, they happen to be liberal arts majors.

As much as I'd love to claim this as a victory for the humanities and sciences -- and for academic rigor in general -- I have to confess I'm skeptical. What I really suspect is going on is that a) we're admitting a lot of students who are way, way over their heads in college and would not benefit from most of their classes even if they had the best teaching in the world; and b) the type of student who DOES benefit from college also happens to be the type who is more likely to major in the arts and sciences.

I don't know exactly why this is the case, but I always scan my course rolls for students' majors as they start to register for classes, and I've learned a few rules of thumb. It makes me happy to see lots of English majors, of course; ditto history and other writing-heavy subjects; but biology or chemistry is usually equally good news. Actually, almost anything in the College of Arts and Sciences is good news (although fine arts is sometimes dicey -- theater majors, on the other hand, can be flaky, but they're usually smart). Secondary ed majors are quite decent, but they usually have a second major in the arts and sciences. Pre-nursing students are a mixed bag, but OK-ish students, as a rule. Ditto culinary arts. Business, elementary ed, physical therapy, and kinesiology majors are bad news. General Studies is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

I hasten to add that these are very broad generalizations, and I've met lots and lots of individual students who are exceptions. (And I don't, of course, let my preconceptions about the major influence how I treat the students; in any case, I've usually forgotten what they were studying by the time I meet them in the classroom, and only remember when I check back at the end of the semester.) But an awful lot of the time, the generalizations hold true. And the differences among majors are evident in freshmen, students who haven't yet taken classes in their intended major, so it's not as if education classes make people dumber. (Although I have sat through a couple of teaching workshops that I'm pretty sure made me dumber.)

I think there are a couple of factors at work, one more or less benign, the other more worrisome. First off, a school like Misnomer U. -- a not-overly-selective small state university -- is really at least two different institutions awkwardly smushed together. It's a college and a trade school. Many of our students are looking for certification rather than education. Mostly, they get what they came for. A few of them may catch on fire when some stray sparks land on them in their gen ed classes. I like to think that some of the ones who don't catch on fire at least discover that the world is bigger than they learned in high school. But by and large, it's cool if they don't learn anything other than physical therapy. (On the other hand, if they are education majors it's not so cool.)

But even here, we get a fair number of students who are looking for more than certification, and those tend to be the ones who drift toward the College of Arts and Sciences -- because it takes a leap of faith, and a bit of intellectual passion, to get an undergraduate degree in history or theater or even math or chemistry, when everybody in your life is asking "What are you going to do with that?" You have to like an academic subject so much that you don't care what you're going to do with it, or have enough imagination to recognize that you can do non-obvious things with a philosophy degree, even if you've never seen an ad for a philosopher on Craigslist. You have to, in short, be a person who thinks. And you have to be OK with reading books and writing papers, or spending lots of time in the lab.

So far, so good. But things start to look less benign when I think about the differences between Misnomer U. and the Beloved Alma Mater (also a smallish state university, but far more selective; the sort of place where the vast majority of my classmates aspired to grad school or law school). See, we didn't even have majors like Physical Therapy and Paralegal Studies at the Beloved Alma Mater. Education was an option, but you had to double-major in something else. Business was an option, too, but that was about it for pre-professional studies. Practically everyone I knew was majoring in a traditional arts-and-sciences field, or else a quirky and even more gloriously impractical interdisciplinary program. I suspect that this still is the norm for selective colleges. It's the open- or nearly-open admissions schools that attract huge numbers of students with majors that are linked to a specific job. And within these schools -- if Misnomer U. is typical -- the students who aspire to a degree in education or general business or physical therapy mostly seem to be the first-generation college students who are coming in with spotty academic preparation and only a vague idea how the university works, not the children of doctors and lawyers.

And that's a problem. And I haven't the foggiest idea what the solution is.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taking the pledge

No, not that pledge. I am not sure there is ever a good time for temperance and sobriety, but the eve of a new semester isn't it. I refer to the Academic Honesty Pledge, which (as of this semester) all students taking a course in my department are supposed to sign.

I dunno. I do believe in academic honor codes, and I think students should experience rituals that reinforce them every so often. It's how I came up: both the Beloved Alma Mater and the University of Basketball were old-school Southern gentlemen's universities, and as problematic as that heritage is in some respects, they did know how to impress upon students that the honor code was a Big Deal. But I kind of think that a culture of academic integrity has to come from the students, not imposed on them from above; and I doubt that one department, without institutional backing, can do much to create that culture.

I also suspect that to make an honor code really stick, you have to trust your students enough to let them be the enforcers -- and I'm not sure anyone at my institution does. (Misnomer U. began as an old-school Southern ladies' university, you see, a heritage that comes with a strong tradition of in loco parentis. While both of my alma maters have had a student-administered honor court since time out of mind, I can't really imagine the young ladies of prior generations at Misnomer being allowed to run anything of the sort, given everything else I've heard about the Old Days. And the paternalistic attitude still persists, even after coeducation; I was rather shocked, in my first year, to learn that dorms here have curfews.)

And I wonder, too, if we can sustain a culture of anything, considering how many students transfer in or drop out and are only on campus for a year or two. And how many of them live off campus and show up only for classes. So many of our students inhabit a different world from the one where I went to college, and where I taught as a grad student, and I don't know yet what that world looks like.

But it's a start, I guess, and it means that the students in our classes this semester will at least be aware that the university has an honor code. And maybe that's something.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Small Nephew at One

I haven't really been around babies much. I used to babysit, but only for kids old enough for their parents to trust a youngish teenager with them, which usually meant preschool and up. And on the two previous occasions when I had met the Small Nephew, he was either a newborn or just out of surgery and under heavy sedation.

He's not under sedation now, and he's getting to the age where babies are seriously interesting. One-year-olds can do stuff, like standing up ...

... and vacuuming! (Who knew he was going to be obsessed with vacuum cleaners? He certainly didn't get it from me.)

... and sliding:

... and screeching! (This, unfortunately, is another favorite activity, and he can hit some notes that are positively operatic though not melodious.)

He can also walk -- five or six wobbly steps at a stretch, sometimes, before falling down -- but I was sadly unable to capture this on film. And he's starting to talk, or at least say "Mamama" at sort of appropriate moments. One is a cool age.