(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
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Tuesday, February 28, 2006
We are not amused
Today should have been a good day.
First of all, this morning was the first morning of the semester in which it was actually LIGHT outside when I left my apartment--streetlights off and everything! It's also the day on which I returned the last of those 110 papers. Even better than that? It's midterm day in my survey classes, so I had one less prep.
What could ruin such a day?
My downstairs neighbors, that's what. I may have mentioned that my downstairs neighbors (and my next-door neighbor, but I've never had any problems with him) are rock musicians, and I may further have mentioned that they occasionally do REALLY ANNOYING THINGS like decide to start mixing bass tracks at 2 a.m.
But last night took the cake. I went to bed around 1 a.m.--much too late, already, for the time at which I had to get up today--and I could hear their music softly wafting up from the floor beneath my bed. In fact, I really couldn't hear the music at all, but I could hear the bass line. It wasn't all that heavy, but it was heavy enough and variable enough (they must have had multiple CDs in the changer) that I couldn't relax and fall asleep; I just keep feeling that beat in place of my heartbeat.
Well, I thought, they'll stop soon. They usually do.
But they didn't stop.
Okay, I thought, I'll pound on the floor.
I did this a few times, and usually that has the desired effect--but this time it didn't.
Instead, I lay in bed for hours, occasionally starting to doze, but never for long. Then I tried sleeping on the floor in another part of my apartment, but that was even worse: closer to the noise. Finally, I dragged a blanket and pillows into the bathroom, which juts off away from the main room, and I finally managed to sleep in two installments for a total of perhaps an hour.
When I left my apartment after 6 a.m., the bass was still going.
You'd better believe I left a note on the fuckers' door when I left.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Photoblogging: A Tale of Two Coats
No, I haven't died--I've just been trying to work my way out from under the remains of those 110 papers, write a couple of midterms, reapply for this lectureship for next year, and accomplish a whole bunch of other things that I've already forgotten about.
George Washington Boyfriend was also in town over the weekend, and we celebrated my birthday, belatedly, by going to see a most excellent production of All's Well That Ends Well, grabbing brunch with Def & Stave, and then going almost to the ends of the earth for someone else's birthday party, for which we were amply rewarded with Prohibition-era cocktails (minus the bathtub hootch), two disdainful cats, and one woman with a fake but compelling Israeli accent.
Anyway, here are a couple of photos from the weekend, featuring first my fabulous mink coat* and then (along with the lovely h.k.) the almost equally fabulous peacock-blue one that I bought on sale last fall. Since when did I become all about the coats? Couldn't tell you. But they're lovely, no?
*As I mentioned in an earlier post, I inherited this coat, gratis, from a coworker of my mother's, and it's at least 40 years old. In other words, those animals have been dead for longer than I've been alive.
(These photos will self-destruct in approximately 24 hours, but I wanted to take this opportunity to give y'all a completely false impression of my life and the glamorousness thereof.)
Friday, February 24, 2006
Friday poetry blogging: Mark Strand
Ooh, I'm getting this one in just under the wire. Another poem I've loved for ages.
The Continuous Life
What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children crouched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? Oh parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost--a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.
[UPDATE: This is most odd, but I was just catching up on my Bloglines subscriptions and I noticed that Scrivener posted the exact same poem earlier today. Apologies for the duplication!]
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Why yes: I AM originally from the West Coast
The latest example of my eloquent and inspiring classroom manner:
"Yes, you're right! It's TOTALLY homoerotic! But this character's so not getting it--he's just not feeling the vibeage."
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
I just found a plagiarist. A smart plagiarist, but still, a plagiarist. S/he's taken material from Sparknotes, completely rewritten it, and then worked that material into her/his own text. There aren't any identical sentences, but there are a number of eeriely similar paragraphs that make observations I doubt the student could come up with on her/his own. Oh, and the material that does not appear to owe anything to Sparknotes? Pretty bad.
So depressing. What's most depressing is the fact that I'm sure there are others out there that I'm just not catching--searching the internet is so time-consuming! In fact, the only reason that I caught this one was because s/he made one interesting and rather unusual observation that was oddly like an observation made in another student's paper on the same subject. The papers are otherwise quite different, but the coincidence made me wonder whether they'd been reading the same source somewhere. . . and thus, Sparknotes.
I'm sure most of the academics out there in the blogosphere have dealt with plagiarists many a time, but this is my first unambiguous case--and it's sad- and angry-making at the same time.
[UPDATE: I talked to our DUS today, laid out the case and my proposed plan of action, and had it enthusiastically seconded. Love the DUS! So when I returned papers at the end of class today, I gave this student back her/his essay, to which I'd paperclipped the Sparknotes printout with all the relevant paragraphs highlighted and labeled with the corresponding essay page numbers--it was really a damning document by the time I worked my way through it. I also included a copy of my plagiarism policy from my syllabus, and wrote a short note informing the student that I was failing the paper, and s/he should be glad I wasn't failing her/him for the course and reporting this incident to the disciplinary committee (which is my official policy).
When the student came up to collect her/his paper, I just said, briefly, "If you have any questions, Student, you may email me." Student looked a little puzzled, but said, "uh, okay." And so far, nothing.]
A few other random things from my evaluations:
1. My students appear to like group work--quite a few of them mentioned it, and they all had positive things to say about it. My INRU students hated group work, and I pretty much hated group work when I was in college too--but then again, the classes I teach have 30 students, not 15, so maybe that accounts for the difference.
2. Big Urban's form has one write-in question that deals specifically with the instructor's sensitivity toward the diversity of the students (race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability). Many of my students just didn't answer this question, or said, "fine," but several wrote in pretty funny responses, along the lines of, "Hey, she wasn't a racist! That was neat!"
3. A small but noticeable handful of students in one--but only one--of my survey classes commented negatively on the religious content of the course. Now, most of you know what survey I teach, which means that you know that 80% of the major works written during this period have SOME religious content. So, um, I can't really "include more secular stuff," or "can the religious crap," as one evaluator so eloquently put it. But a couple of students made remarks along the lines of, "instructor seemed to expect a thorough knowledge of the Old and New Testament," or, "discussion was dominated by religiously-educated people." I don't think either of these remarks is remotely true--it's useful to have some students in the room who know the major biblical stories, and can spot an allusion when they see it, but the number of times that I asked whether a particular story rang any bells was quite small--but I wonder if I should be more up-front this semester in saying, "look, these are religious works, and we have to have some understanding of the context of these works, but a religious background is not a prerequisite to understanding them. I value the insights that those of you who are members of a particular faith might be able to bring to them, but I also want to point out that the religious culture of these periods was, in fact, usually EXTREMELY different from both contemporary Protestantism and contemporary Catholicism. We need to accept it on its own terms, and both those of you who are secularists and those of you who are religious have useful perspectives to offer." Or am I just fretting about nothing?
4. A large number of students mentioned how excited I was about the material and how funny and fun my "lectures" were (I rarely lecture, but I guess that's what they call my talking about something for five minutes in the midst of a class discussion). This pleases me extremely.
5. Returning to the issue of paper-grading: when I went back and looked at the evaluations carefully, there were actually only a couple of students who used the terms "condescending" or "unprofessional," though there were certainly others who said that they wanted more praise or that they felt demoralized reading my comments. So I think I'll definitely work on incorporating more positive comments in my grading, but I may mostly ignore any worries about colloquialisms and the like.
6. Four or five students described my expectations for papers as "graduate-level work." Duuude. Now that shit's funny.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Glory be! I finally got my evaluations today. Yes, from last semester. Yes, that semester that ended, like, two months ago.
Short version: on a cursory look, they actually seem pretty good--or at any rate, better than I expected. My assessment of them may be skewed, though, by the fact that so much time has now passed & I'm no longer particularly emotionally invested in these classes, or perhaps by the fact that I'm teaching WAY more students than I ever have before (which means that the bad evals don't stand out as much), or possibly by the fact that I'm more psychologically and pedagogically secure than I used to be (that last one seems unlikely, but let's keep the dream alive).
The way that Big Urban presents the information from the evals may also be affecting my sense of their content: the evaluations are, primarily, Scantron forms with about 20 questions on them that ask students to respond with, "strongly agree," "agree," "neutral," "disagree," or "strongly disagree." Then the back of the forms have five or six questions to which students can write in comments. When I receive this information, the Scantron scores are consolidated, so I see each individual question, and then both the number of students and the percentage of students who gave each answer. To my mind, it's MUCH easier not to obsess over the smaller number of negative reactions when one can say, "Hey! 80% of the class agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, 'this instructor taught this course well'! And 65% said that they learned how to better analyze and critically evaluate arguments!" And to hell with the 10 or 20% who responded negatively.
That may not be the best response, but it's the easy one, allowing me to feel that I'm doing, basically, okay. The write-in portion of the evaluations was much more informative, even though only some 2/3 of my students bothered to complete them--and there are things in there that I need to think seriously about.
I've already gotten past the two evals that described me as pretentious, the one that said, "she went to INRU and she needs to realize that the standards she has for INRU students are beyond us" (which frankly rather pained me), and the usual handful of completely contradictory responses (e.g., coupla kids said that discussion wasn't useful and there should have been more lecturing, coupla kids said that there was too much lecturing and there should have been more discussion). But two negative comments kept resurfacing: my students disliked the reading quizzes and they thought that I was really, really mean on their papers.
And, okay: reading quizzes suck, but I'm not getting rid of them. Maybe I'll reduce the number to 8 per semester rather than 10, but I think they serve several very useful purposes--giving diligent kids who aren't great writers a chance to improve their grades; ensuring attendance; and letting me know who's keeping up with the reading.
As for the paper grading: I don't care if my students think I'm too hard on their papers; I don't believe that I am, and it's not my problem, really, if they've been coddled by their other instructors. I also got very high marks for accessibility and availability outside of class, and I think that my positive overall evaluations suggests that, whatever they think of me as a paper grader, it didn't completely tank their impression of the class as a whole.
BUT. One remark that came up in many of those grading complaints was that my comments on papers were "rude," "condescending," and "unprofessional." This does concern me, quite a bit. However, I'm not entirely sure to what these remarks refer. I do have a tendency to write, "Huh?" in the margin when I get completely lost, and if a paper is really a disaster I might say, "I have no idea what you're talking about!" Or, "This is a total cop-out." That's not typical of my paper comments, by any means, but they're there. Are colloquialisms unprofessional? Or expressions of exasperation? Well, maybe I need to cut them out.
I also suspect that I need to work harder on emphasizing the positive--as someone (Bardiac?) recently observed, when we write comments on papers, we often think of them as our justification for giving a low grade, rather than as useful and constructive advice. I happen to think that all my criticisms are BOTH, but I can appreciate that it may not seem that way, especially now that I use a grading rubric for my final comments. This rubric is a form with five categories (thesis, argumentation/structure, use of evidence, introduction & conclusion, and writing/mechanics), next to each of which I've provided a short explanation for what a sucessful paper does in that category. In the space below each category I write specific, brief comments by hand. I think this demystifies the grading process and provides essential information laid out in a helpful way--but I suspect that it may be true that, when I get, let's say, a B-minus paper, the comments sometimes range from the negative to the lukewarm. When I used to type up my comments in the form of a short letter I always led with the positive (even if the best I could do was saying, "you've chosen a really important topic to write on"), but the rubric format doesn't lend itself to that very well. Maybe I should write a final sentence, next to the grade, saying something along those lines? Or "don't be discouraged! you have really good ideas, and you just need to express them more clearly"?
Sigh. I wish I hadn't just returned a set of papers today.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Not as young as I used to be
But, sometimes, I can still put on a good show for an evening.
Because of my conference, George Washington Boyfriend and I had agreed that we'd celebrate my birthday next weekend, when he'd be coming into town. But I wanted to do something on the day itself, so Bert and I were planning on getting together and grabbing drinks or dinner. But then he came up with a better idea: dance party!
For a time, Bert was a serious partier, and we used to go out dancing almost every time I visited him, but now he goes out less frequently and mostly to smaller events and/or ones where he knows & likes the DJ; the last couple of times he's invited me I haven't been able to make it, and it's been probably close to two years since we went out dancing together. And how fantastic it was to do it again!
The party in question was a medium-sized event, not exactly private, but mostly spread by word-of-mouth. The organizers had rented out a most excellent space--a turn-of-the-century bank building that now houses a bar and club--and the DJ was quite good, playing happy, lively stuff, just the thing for the cold, bleak middle of February. It was a queer crowd, of course, which was great. I really dislike the scene at straight clubs (the drunk and borderline belligerent guys, the feeling of being perpetually on display), and gay clubs allow me to just do my own thing, enjoy the music, dress to dance (i.e., wear sneakers), and be pleasantly disregarded by everyone except my friends and my friends' friends. But, wouldn't you know it: possibly the only straight guy in the entire place managed to find me! Friendly and harmless, though, and he left me alone after a bit--whether because he concluded that I wasn't interested or because Bert's other closest friend, Maria, and her girlfriend soon showed up and I was kissing them hello and dancing with them; I suspect he may have come to the conclusion that I wasn't oriented in his direction.
Many of Bert's fanning friends were there, and I brought the lovely fans that he made me for my birthday several years back:
(For those of you completely flummoxed, here's an article on fanning that contains a few action shots.)
I definitely don't have the partying stamina that I once had, though, and between my having been up since 4 a.m. and Bert's buying all my drinks (which meant that he bought me a drink every time he bought himself one; he has, shall we say, recently rediscovered the joys of alcohol now that he's no longer using other things), I was a bit of a mess by the time I left. This morning was also pretty unpleasant, but I've since rallied. Haven't yet turned to the papers, but they're lying in wait.
Oh, and that picture above? Brought to you courtesy of my birthday present from my parents: a digital camera! Expect frequent photoblogging from here on out.
So all in all, a great birthday, and more good times to come this weekend, if I can make it there.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
This is just to say
That I'm back home now, after a stupidly early flight, far too little sleep, and far too much to drink last night. But! I didn't die in a fiery explosion, so I can go out tonight to celebrate my thirty-first year of life on this earth.
The conference was great, as usual, and despite my concern about my paper--which came from material I'd thrown into my dissertation last summer and really hadn't looked at since then--it went over very well and led to some useful discussions; two (senior) scholars even asked for copies so that they could cite or refer to it in their own work--which has to be a good sign! I was also nominated & appointed to a position within the organization, which I'm equally psyched about. It's a group that I love, and it's nice to think that I'll have some small hand in helping to run it and some say in how it approaches its next few years of existence. (I'm also relieved to have a good reason to keep attending this conference, since I'm not sure how much, if any, new scholarship I'll be doing in this particular area in the next year or two.)
Now, if only I didn't still have 44 papers left to grade. . .
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Early Friday poetry blogging: Thomas Nashe
I expect I'll be away from my blog for the next several days (although there IS a free business center in the hotel, so if anything crucial happens--or if I've just had too much wine--it's possible you'll get a mid-conference update), but I wanted to post this before I left.
As I've mentioned, although I rather like flying, I'm always half-convinced that I'm going to die in a fiery explosion every time I do so. There's a poem that I sometimes take with me when I fly and that involves travelling and the fear of death--but unfortunately I can't post it, since it's weirdly related to the conference I'm about to attend. So here's a second best, by my boy Tommy N.
A Litany in Time of Plague
Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life's lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen's eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords must not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
"Come, come!" the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death's bitterness;
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player's stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Like a prom dress
I'm off tomorrow to a conference. Although it's hard to imagine that it could surpass that October conference (it certainly can't beat its location), this one is always a ton of fun and I'm really looking forward to it.
This particular conference was the first that I attended as a graduate student, and it was nothing like what I had expected. I had expected to be ill at ease the entire time: no one to talk to at the receptions, peppered with impossible questions after my paper, and generally disregarded as all the real scholars hung out with the other real scholars. I was also irrationally afraid that my advisor--who wasn't going that year, but who knew many of the attendees--was going to hear about whatever horribly embarrassing thing I wound up doing.
Instead, I met some of the most passionate, enthusiastic, and unjaded scholars I've yet to encounter--people generous of their time, eager to see each other, sure, but also eager to meet anyone new working on their subject. At the very first reception one long-time member of the organization wandered over with her glass of wine and said, "So, how ARE you?" with such ease that I was convinced she had me mistaken for someone she actually knew. The entire conference was like that: lots of papers, lots of enthusiastic discussion of those papers, but an almost equal amount of socializing, silliness, singing, and drinking. It was, in many ways, like the very best parts of grad school.
It was also the first intimation that I'd had that academia might be something other than the competitive and hierarchical place it seemed to me from my years at INRU. These scholars were not, in many cases, at the most impressive institutions--and those who were at name-brand schools weren't condescending to those who weren't--but they had good lives. They'd written books I'd read and admired. They took everyone seriously, even lowly grad student me. I left the conference feeling loved--and feeling equally certain that I had to go back.
And I have, every year.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Last night I went to see Jonesy's latest show, an awesome Shaw production. Afterwards, as it was closing night, I hung out with her and the rest of the cast downstairs over pizza and Champagne. One of the older company members, upon being introduced to me, shook hands and said, "Lecturess, good to meet you. And what do you DO with that voice?"
To which I replied, of course, that I used it in the service of lecturing the unwilling and the ungrateful about lit-raht-chure. But his remark made me think, not for the first time, that I'd like to take voice lessons. I have a fairly low voice, which I use forcefully when I teach--but I find that in everyday conversation, and even to a degree in the classroom, I often wind up speaking in my higher and weaker register (what I believe professionals refer to as the "head" voice). I don't know if this is a subconscious attempt to sound more feminine, or just a lack of diaphragm training, but I'd like to make better use of my voice. In its proper register it can indeed be very sultry and sexy--but the real benefit, I imagine, of learning to speak with more diaphragm support, would be that it would relieve some of pressure on my vocal chords and lessen the likelihood of my growing hoarse at the end of a long day of teaching.
And hey: if this whole academia thing didn't work out, I could always go into radio.
[UPDATE: So in my ongoing attempt to avoid grading my current set of papers, I surfed around the internet for a while and finally ordered this book. I'll let you know if it in fact changes my life.]
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Oh yes: the job market
Some small number of my readers--most likely those who are on the job market themselves or those who know me in real life but who haven't had a personal communication from me in ages (yeah, sorry about that!)--may be wondering what's up with my job search.
Short answer: who knows?
Longer answer: who really cares?
I am, I guess, still waiting. Of the six schools with which I had first-round interviews, I've had, so far, one campus visit and one definite rejection. Of the other four, there are two or maybe three that might plausibly still call me if their top candidates don't work out. (Small College, where I interviewed, is still bringing people out to campus, so I haven't had reason to hear back from them yet.)
And in some ways I don't even care any more about hearing back from those four schools. I'd eagerly take a campus visit from any one of them, don't get me wrong--but they all have their drawbacks (over here we've got a quite good school in a bad location; there an almost-as-good school in an even worse location; and far over on that side an okay school in an okay location--but whose hiring committee I didn't like). It would be a nice ego validation, and it would make me feel as though my odds of getting a tenure-track job somewhere were higher. . . but it's just hard for me to get myself all worked up about what this says about my worth as a scholar, or to go around thinking that I just suck for not being someone's top candidate as opposed to their fourth or fifth.
Maybe it's that I've successfully internalized the message that the job market is a crap-shoot, and that plenty of good candidates don't get jobs their first couple of times out--or maybe it's that I have a good fall-back. I didn't, initially, want to be at Big Urban for more than a year, but all in all I've been fairly happy. Moreover, I already know what my fall schedule would be, and it's pretty sweet: just three classes (freshman composition, Author #2, and Advanced Author #2), two of which I've already taught, for a maximum of 60 total students. With no service expectations and no getting-to-know-the-ropes, I'd probably have quite bit of time to work on my scholarship; I'd be getting a raise; and if I move to be closer to Big Urban, I could participate in the colloquium in my field.
Or maybe it's just that I know that life is very long, and that our beginnings never do know our ends. Most of the faculty I most admired at INRU didn't start out there, or at an equivalent institution--they served long years at West Podunk State or Winding Stream College for Girls until their first--or sometimes second or third--book made them a hot item. You never really know who's got staying power, or who's still developing, or for that matter where you yourself will be most happy: some of the most productive scholars I know, who have published the definitive work on X or Y or Z, are at what most people would consider to be no-name institutions.
That, then, is where my real anxiety resides. I'm not especially worried about whether I land a tenure-track job this year or next year. I AM worried, sometimes very seriously, about whether I'm actually going anywhere as a scholar: whether I'm going to be able to turn this dissertation into a book in a reasonable period of time, whether I have good ideas (and enough of them)--whether *I* have staying power.
But that's not a worry, frankly, that would be eased by getting a fancy research job.
Friday, February 10, 2006
Friday poetry blogging: George Bradley
Following the example of Jo(e), Crazy, Scrivener, and others, I'm honoring this new holiday by posting a poem by George Bradley that I've loved since college.
E Pur Si Muove
Of course it had been madness even to bring it up,
Sheer madness, like the sighting of sea serpents
Or the discovery of strange lights in the sky;
And plainly it had been worse than madness to insist,
To devote entire treatises and a lifetime to the subject,
To a thing of great implication but no immediate use,
A thing that could not be conceived without study,
Without years of training and the aid of instruments,
And especially the delicate instrument of an open mind;
It had been stubbornness, foolishness, you see that now,
And so when the time comes you are ready to acquiesce,
When you have had your say, told the truth one last time,
You are ready to give the matter over and say no more.
When the time comes, you will take back your words,
But not because you fear the consequences of refusal
(Who looks into the night sky and imagines a new order
Has already seen the instruments of torture many times),
Though this is the conclusion your inquisitors will draw
And it is true you are not what is called a brave man;
And not because you are made indifferent in your contempt
(You take their point, agree with it even, that there is
Nothing so dangerous as a new way of seeing the world);
Rather, you accept the conditions lightly, the recantation,
Lightly you accept their offer of a villa with a view,
Because you have grown old and contention makes you weary,
Because you like the idea of raising vines and tomatoes,
And because, whatever you might have said or suffered,
It is in motion still, cutting a great arc through nothingness,
Sweeping through space according to a design so grand
It remains, just as they would have it, a matter of faith,
Because, whether you say yea, whether you say nay,
Nevertheless it moves.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Ruling through fear
So, I think I'm generally a fairly warm and encouraging teacher: intense about the material, sure, but also smiley and energetic and inclined to wacky irreverence. I like this persona, and for the most part, I think my students groove on it.
But I have to admit that I really love doing the sudden switch-up when it's time to let a class know that they're fucking up and I'm pissed. I love that deader-than-dead silence that fills the room when they hear a hard-edged tone they've never heard from me before. When I put on that just-barely-tolerant, "many people in this room appear to be under some misapprehensions about my course policies" voice, with just the barest flicker of a smile at the corners of my mouth--is it derision? Is it a hint of warmth?--ooh, that's grand.
I think this is because, as imperious and bitchy as I can occasionally be in my everyday life, it's usually at some remove: I may gripe to a friend about what I really think or what I'd really like to say to so-and-so, but, even when I'm having an argument with someone, I'm unlikely to take on a particularly commanding attitude. For one thing, I'm never 100% certain that I'm right, and for another, I'd far rather persuade than bully someone. I also don't really like confrontation. But in the classroom? I'm the fucking divinely-appointed, unimpeachable monarch, and every once in a while it's nice to remind myself and my students of this fact.
So today in my class on Author #1--the home of the crappy close-readings--I gave my students a completely unexpected quiz, covering the last few weeks of reading. It was quite doable, dealing almost entirely with things we had discussed in some way in class, but I had a hunch that many of my students would bomb it. Quite a few looked worried as they passed them in. Then I told them I didn't want to give them quizzes, had not planned on giving them quizzes, and found the exercise very high-school--but I felt strongly that not everyone was doing the reading. Then I gave them the, well! let-us-review-the-policies-for-this-course speech.
Much nervous stirring. Someone asked about the quiz.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with the quiz," I said. "I may keep it, I may curve it, I may throw it out. It's partly a diagnostic so I can assess where everyone is. But it's also to put you on notice that you will be having quizzes occasionally from now on, and you will need to be taking notes and doing the readings."
They started to relax.
"So. Are we clear on the expectations for this class? I realize that some of the material we've been reading these first few weeks can be hard to get your head around, and you may find it less interesting than what we'll be reading for most of the rest of the semester. But I really care about the works I've assigned you, and I really believe they're worthwhile and interesting. I expect you to read them carefully, to come with questions, and to at least make a show of enthusiasm occasionally." Then I smiled. "It doesn't have to be REAL enthusiasm, mind you. I'll be satisfied with a convincing imitation."
"So. Can we be enthusiastic? Or pretend to be? Good!"
And we proceeded to have an awesome class.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Ohhh, I'm ready for a drink. Or four.
It's time to stop grading for the night. How do I know this? I know this because I'm now evaluating the projectile properties of the objects nearest at hand: weighty enough to travel some distance, and capable of making a really loud noise? light enough actually to heft? Relatively unbreakable (or, failing that, relatively unvaluable)?
These papers are awful. It's the worst collection of papers I've seen since starting teaching here. I have to keep reminding myself that, as New Kid wrote some months ago, my students aren't actually writing bad papers just to piss me off, and that I perhaps bear some blame for not preparing my students adequately for the assignment--but, nevertheless, I'm filled with rage.
These are close-reading papers. Take a short poem (or part of a longer poem), and analyze it in detail: word choice, imagery, poetic devices, etc., and construct an argument that discusses how these features affect the meaning of the poem.
Now, I didn't expect them to be great, and I did expect some complete disasters, but I'm getting a LOT of disasters, and I'm at a loss as to how I might have better prepared my students for this assignment. Does anyone have any advice? (Or want to tell me that my students are just idiots? Because I'd take that, too!)
Here's the deal. This is a 200-level seminar, all English majors, mostly upperclassmen and -women. I went in with the assumption that nearly all the students taking the class would already have taken the relevant period survey class, and this turned out not to be the case. Nevertheless, they've certainly all taken a number of English classes, including the intro-to-the-English-major course that deals with, you know, examining texts, and they're pretty much as smart, collectively, as any other group of majors that I've had at Big Urban.
But I know that close readings can seem scary and unfamiliar (like poetry itself, to many students), and I didn't assume that my students had necessarily retained more than perhaps a few poetic terms from some intro class. I definitely didn't assume that they could do a close-reading on their own.
So: in one class, I introduced them to the basic terminology that I thought they'd need, discussed the effects that various poetic devices have or might have, and then we spent the rest of the period working through a sonnet together: we read it, we paraphrased it, we talked about its meaning, and then we brainstormed, collectively, all the "interesting things" we saw: image patterns, word choices, particular examples of alliteration, emjambment, etc., and discussed how these might affect the meaning of the poem. We found patterns among these interesting things, and then talked about plausible theses that might emerge from this work.
In the next class period, I had them do the same kind of work in groups on a second poem, and on a third day (we were doing other things for half of the period on the second and third day, so it wasn't All Close Reading, All the Time) we regrouped to discuss their findings collectively and weigh in on which theses seemed most promising.
I also posted a sample close-reading paper on Blackboard, and provided my students with a list of three things that I felt made the paper successful, and what general principles they should derive from those things.
But. . . I still have papers, many papers, that don't really look at their particular poem, at all. And you know, if someone even did a competant, thorough paraphrase, one that identified shifts in tone or perspective, and maybe briefly discussed one key metaphor or a word with a double meaning? That would be a B. Possibly a B+. (I do, actually, have a couple of papers like this, but only a couple.)
Instead, what I have for the most part are, "This poem is about ________," followed by vague, usually flagrantly wrong statements about what the author means, and what he's trying to do, with perhaps a reference in passing to the rhyme scheme "that gives a soothing flow" to the author's [incorrectly identified] sentiments. Or the alliteration "that highlights an important [unspecified] idea."
Partly I'm just complaining, here, but I really do want ideas for how to get better papers out of my students. I never received any instruction in close-reading in college (I was just expected to do it, and I did it terribly), and I was very uncertain about my powers of poetic analysis for a long time, so I'm sympathetic to my students; I think that I approach the subject as someone who really does regard poetic analysis as a set of skills--not as a native talent or something intuitive--that can be enumerated and learned. I also, of course, think that it's an incredibly important set of skills, one that really opens up entirely new literary worlds, and one that my students need to have some practice with before they can be let loose on a thematic paper topic (lest they go crazy with broad generalizations and superficial discussions of key passages).
If I don't have any control over their intro-to-the-major courses, is there anything I can do at this stage? Without using up any more class time? (Or running up a serious bar tab?)
Advice welcomed, and needed.
UPDATE 2/9: For those of you interested in the final results: I had a decent number of B range grades for this class in the end, which I was happy about, given that none of them appeared to have done a close reading before. Eight or nine students had C-minuses or below, however (some of this was just due to idiocy; one student turned in a two-page paper, which of course I failed). So, I announced that anyone with a C-minus or below would be permitted to revise, but that I'd average their two paper grades. And I've already had some nice conversations with some of those students who seem rather stunned, but also really committed to learning how to do this whole close reading thing. Too bad they're all seniors--but, we get them when we can, I guess.
Monday, February 06, 2006
Last Thursday, I received 23 papers from my class on Author #1. So far, I've graded six, but I think I can get them done in the next couple of days--I'd sure better, because...
This Thursday, I will be receiving 27 papers from my class on Author #2.
And the following Thursday I will be receiving 60 papers from Surveys 1 & 2.
And about the time that I'm finishing up those survey papers? I'll receive 87 midterms. And then 23 new papers on Author #1.
God help me.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
More Starlet Star!
Yesterday I went to see a terrible movie with Bert and George Washington Boyfriend. We knew it was going to be terrible and it was terrible, but we voluntarily paid $10 apiece anyway, all for the actor herein known as Starlet Star.
You may or may not have heard of her. On one of my first dates with George Washington Boyfriend, he mentioned, all faux-causually, "so, after four years here, I finally had my first brush with INRU fame: last semester, I taught Starlet Star."
And I said, "who?"
I Googled her when I went home, found her to be beautiful but to have acted in a few extremely unremarkable movies, and forgot about her.
Then, the next semester, I had her in one of my sections. And the following year I had her in another section. And she is possibly the most gorgeous human being I have ever laid eyes on--but also very smart, very conscientious, and sweet in a shy and almost goofily awkward way. I completely fell in love with her, and also became convinced that she had real acting chops: when we were reading drama, she could take a complicated part in difficult language totally cold, and just nail it.
About the time that I was teaching her for the second time, GWB and I decided that we had to see what she was all about, professionally, so we rented a recent movie in which she had a supporting part. She did a creditable job, but the movie was damn bad. After suffering through to the credits, one of us turned to the other, brow furrowed, and said, mock-earnestly, "You know what that movie needed? More Starlet Star." The phrase stuck: now, after a bad movie, a painful conference panel, or a mediocre meal, the solution, obviously, would have been--"More Starlet Star!"
So now she's in her biggest Hollywood role to date, in a movie that, bizarrely, is set somewhere GWB knows extremely well, and we just couldn't not go (Bert had other motives for going, which those who know him in real life will instantly recognize). The three of us howled through most of the movie, it was so bad--but the good news is that Starlet Star gets a lot of screen time and does the most that can be done with a poorly written part.
And I hope this portends good things for her. She's smart, she's talented, and she obviously took some career hits in favor of finishing her degree (in English, no less!). Someone with her substance and her skills deserves to do well, even in the superficial world of Hollywood.
Say it with me: more Starlet Star!
Friday, February 03, 2006
All hail, Bitch, Ph.D.
[Note: my male readers may wish to skip this post. Or perhaps not.]
Today, following the advice of Bitch, Ph.D., I finally had a professional bra fitting. And verily: it was a revelation.
If it hadn't been for the Bitch, it probably never would have occured to me that I might be wearing the wrong size. I've been wearing the same size bra since I was 16 or 18, and I've never been aware of any problems. I mean, if it fits, you know it, right? And these seemed to fit. But after the Bitch's lengthy post on bra sizing and the apparently 85% of women who are in fact wearing the wrong size, I started to scrutinize my lingerie collection and to wonder.
Then a week or two ago the New York Times published its own article about bra sizing, wherein the journalist discovered that both she and her mother were wearing--and had been wearing for decades--dramatically incorrect sizes.
So today I went to a fabulous, family-owned lingerie shop not too far away, and got fitted. And? Turns out I'm one band size smaller and one cup size bigger than what I've been wearing for years. (In the unsupportive, frilly, demi-cup jobbies that I never wear, I'm actually TWO cup sizes bigger.) I wouldn't have guessed that wearing the proper size would actually make that much difference--better for one's back, maybe, and giving a nicer line under sweaters--but damned if I wasn't wrong there, too. I've always worn a larger-than-average size, but now, I have to say, va-va-voom!
(Anyone who's interested, and who lives in my city or expects to be visiting in the near future, lemme know. I'll hook you up with THE BEST lingerie fitters in town.)
Thursday, February 02, 2006
. . . but here's something that makes up for those complaints
Three of my four classes kicked ass today. And I mean: they seriously rocked.
This is good, because on Tuesday three of my four classes were abysmal, and I spent the train ride home depressed and convinced that I just didn't have the time, energy, or possibly the ability to teach these classes--whether because I'm teaching so many of them, or because two of them are entirely new, or because I'm just not a very talented teacher after all.
I made some strategic policy changes in one class, and announced those changes--making clear the responsibilities they placed on my students, and my irritation with them for requiring me to mandate these changes--and they seemed to have an instant effect. In the other two classes, though, I didn't do anything differently. The students were just on today, and seemed to be interested in the texts we were reading (in one case, this came as a total surprise--it's a tough and bizarre work, and one they were completely uninterested in on Tuesday).
And the class that didn't go quite as well? It was the class that did go well on Tuesday.
Maybe I'll make it through the semester after all.
Oh, and another complaint
The bathrooms on my floor (and all the floors that contain more offices than classrooms) are always kept locked. Faculty and graduate students have keys, but undergrads do not.
I gather that it's for security reasons, but I've always thought it was stupid: every floor has classrooms on it, and what are students supposed to do? Take the elevator down to the first floor (the building has more than 10) and then come back up?
Well, I now think it's even stupider: today, for the second time in a week, a student I don't know came wandering down the hallway, found my office way back in my module, knocked on my just-barely ajar door, and asked me to let her into the bathroom. Which is WAAAY down the hall from my office. When I'm in the middle of frantically prepping my afternoon classes during my whole hour and a half of downtime all day.
Even more irritating: I think it's the same girl, and I think she knew where my office was because, on Tuesday, at the same hour, an ancient male professor accompanied her on this errand. Thanks, pal. I'm keeping my door shut in the future.