Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Miracle of Christmukkah

I think I have officially recovered from the grading, posting, and small onslaught of emails from students regarding said grading and posting of grades. And I did it just in time to get on a plane headed for my parents' house and the bacchanalia of eating and Christmas shopping that that normally entails this time of year. Three days into the trip and I'm bloated and mostly relaxed--just in time to get to Senor Fluff's family's house for a different kind of holiday break (this one involving many nephews and nieces and house visits from family friends). I had better bone up on my friendliness and break out all of the euphemisms for the profanity I usually use. The best of these, for the record, is "crudbunnies"--the strongest of my mother-in-law's curses. I've also been known to decamp to "heavens to Murgatroyd" under duress.

Yes, it's going to be that kind of Christmas.

I do, however, have to take heart. Part of the tradition at my family's house is Christmas break bingo. Many games. With my mother and my husband and 45-70 geriatric smokers who have attached--not kidding here--Troll doll heads to the tops of their bingo markers. Some even bring bells to ring when they win. [David Lynch is totally missing out on this scene. David, if you're reading this, call me and I'll give you the tour.]

Every year I've gone to play bingo. Often in the winter and during a summer trip home. Let's figure then at least 6 games a year for 11 years. NEVER ONCE, true believers, have I won a game. I have adopted various strategies over the years: lucky charms, radical charity, despair. Nothing has worked.

Until yesterday, when I finally, FINALLY, yelled "BINGO!!!" at the top of my lungs, sending little old ladies everywhere grasping for their oxygen. Holy crudbunnies!! [See how that just doesn't have the same effect?]

It's a whole new era, my friends. Let's have some hope.

I'll be blogging light from my in-laws' place, as I'm not sure what the wi-fi situation is. Be back on Christmas. I hope there's something under the tree, waiting for you, that you've most wanted for the last 11 years!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Pat Myself on the Back Update

After a day of grading work, I have left before me:
10 papers which need comments
6 papers which do not need comments
2 internship evaluations

Normally, this would fill me with despair. Given what I've gotten done today, it looks as if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Enough so that I even got a laugh out a student's sentence: "At first I thought that he was an amoral monster, but techniquely, his "victim" came back to him willingly, so he's not entirely to blame." [snort.] "Techniquely." Apparently it was the way he did it, not the system of rules that should govern his actions.

Someone please remind me not to do this to myself next semester. Come on; how many of you can stand to listen to this kind of whining again in the spring?! That's what I thought. I'll expect your reminders in the mail, along with holiday treats.

Parsing the Dilemma Ethicale

I started to respond to the comments in the last post from Lee, FrenchieF, and Kate, but as the waffling became more and more prodigious, I decided it deserved its own space up here on the big bad blog.

I definitely understand the necessities that both Lee and FrenchieF bring up: failing a class for not meeting a set standard is:
1) Good for first year students (and all students, really), as it teaches them to understand boundaries and expectations
2) Only fair to the students who managed to do the work as it was assigned
3) A reminder that they must take responsibility for their own education and actions.
All of these things are indubitably true. My difficulty this semester, however, is that these kinds of expectations assume that the course is a relatively stable system. At the end of the summer, I designed this course with certain expectations of the students and their abilities, and also with a few predicable projects in mind. What I found in the classroom, however, was not the set of students that I had expected. My students were neither dumb, nor lazy, nor irresponsible. But they were 18 years old, living in a dorm with roommates for the first time, exploring the boundaries of a new kind of social freedom, integrating themselves into all different kinds of communities, trying to understand what was expected of them by 5 different professors, learning academic etiquette, etc. When you think about all of the new learning tasks that we set for first year students, all of which they must take on simultaneously, it's quite easy for me to understand how certain assignments fall off the map. As adults, psychologists tell us not to voluntarily undertake numerous stressful life changes all at once. If you're changing your job, try not to move. If you have to change your job and move, try not to start or end significant relationships (partnerships, marriages, etc.). Avoid all of the above if you've had a relative, spouse, or close friend die. In your first year of college, you manage at least three of the above situations.

While the students may think that I'm omniscent, as Lee says, I'm far from it. Halfway through the semester, I revised the syllabus, took out some assignments, redesigned others. The purpose here was not to drop the standards, but rather to retool the work to suit the students' developmental needs. What was more important to their learning--a third analytical research paper, or a reflective essay in which they examined what and how they had learned over the course of the semester? Which was a better use of class time--a two week interdisciplinary content unit or devoting that same two weeks to continue work on experimental digital collaborative project, focusing on extensive revision via group work?

When I first designed the course, I assumed that the students would come in ready to go, and be eager to take control of their education. Not so much. After all, how do you learn to exercise responsibility in freedom if you've never had it before? The next time I teach this class, I will build in the kinds of periodic checks that I usually avoid as overly disciplinary (mid-term conferences, periodic feedback on ungraded work, etc.). Because it was clear many of them needed that. But for this semester, there was nothing but triage--what's fair to the students, given that I designed a system that misunderstood their psychic location, and drastically retooled mid-semester?

You'll all be happy to know that in the end, I did indeed hold to the amount of content specified, but dialed back on the expectation of the quality of said content. Because pedagogically, in the end, it was more important that they engaged in the process that it was that they created a perfect product. And with those standards in place, 3 students will fail the course.

It is important that we set up standards and hold to them for the sake of the students' learning. For me, it's also important to examine my own fallibility in the design, maintenance, and clarity of those standards. In this case, I learned that holding rigidly to the standards I'd set up before I met the students was punitive rather than educational. Abandoning them altogether was cheating the students who worked hard. I hope that I've found a middle ground between these two positions.

Grades are due on Monday. I have 33 papers, 2 internship evaluations, and 11 blogs left to grade. I'll be returning to this post in January, when I begin to write syllabi for the spring. We'll see if any of my learning from this semester stuck.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dilemma de Ethicale

Oh cripe. I've set myself up good and proper, I have. I've been sitting on an set of assignments that came in from my class of first year students, trying to get some other piles out of the way. I dove in tonight, just to get prepared to go through them for real tomorrow. Oh good lord. It's a hot mess. One on the order of Britney's panty-less shenanigans, I'd say.

Here's the situation: It's been a couple of years since I've had a full, bona fide class of fresh-off-the-boat, where-do-I-do-my-laundry, who's-going-to-wake-me-up-
in-time-for-class, first year students. I designed the class in the summer, having forgotten the real challenges that these students face. Unlike their peers, their learning curve is ridiculously steep. They need to figure out where to eat, how to deal with their roommates, where their classes are, how not to die of alcohol poisoning--any number of crucial, immediate skills that function high up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Obviously, all of these elements in the students' priority list come well before the finer points of Thoreau's theory of the individual, or even the basic plot of The Matrix. [See? I was thinking a little about what would serve them. Just not enough...]

So, over the course of the semester, the students have been writing blogs as a kind of class journal. They were supposed to post once a week or so, and comment on each other's blogs. This will instill some habits of using informal writing to crystallize ideas for more formal papers, class discussion, etc. Since they're doing it all semester long, I can justify how it should be a big honking portion of their final grades. Easy "A," I thought. [Note both the pedagogical rationalization AND the concomitant desire for grade inflation. Hell, it's the end of the semester. I'm letting it all hang out.]

And this would be the moment when I forgot about where first year students are at. Surely someone should have told me that this was a monumental lack of clarity on my part. Did we talk about the blogs in class? Yup. Did I remind them to keep them up? Sure did. Did I, in fact, last week, give them a list of the necessary number of posts and comments and give them clemency to make up the missing ones? Sure did. BUT DID THEY DO IT?! Right-o.

So now I'm faced with a dilemma. If I grade the blogs according to the standards that I set (and we're just going on quantity now, quality is almost off the table), I'm going to fail a goodly number of these students for this assignment--let's say at least a third. The ripple effect is that it may well mean that a third of the class will fail the course. This is bad. All kinds of bad.

But how can I miraculously ignore the fact that there's little raw material for me to grade?! I can't possibly just say "oh right. Well, 2/3 of you managed to at least type in some kind of drivel in passable amounts, but the rest of you just lost your damn minds. So let's just forget the whole thing."

Either I'm a teacher who has failed to guide her students, or I'm a teacher with no standards--who, in dropping them, rewards slacking and ignores consistency and hard work. Any way you slice it, I suck, totally and hard-core.

All right, internets. Make thy judgments swift and merciless. I'm going to bed, and I expect answers when I wake up!!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Blogger is Dirty

I just had to sign in using word verification, and the string read as follows:

Ifcknub?!! Now I don't know about you, but that just suggests all kinds of inappropriate phrases to me. What did that poor nub ever do to deserve that kind of treatment?

I assume that I'm particularly attuned to this because I like the cheap thrill of French Connection UK's design line, which they love to abbreviate FCUK. In Canadia, I came across a shirt at French Connection that read: "Cool as FCUK." Fun with profanity and dyslexia!

For the record, I heartily approve of Blogger using all sorts of close-to-obscene word verification strings. Perhaps this is what happens when Google buys out a company--watch out YouTube! As my community service act of the day, I'd like to suggest the following:

(All of these have been uttered by me, with additional vowels, in the last 3 hours as I faced the full weight of my grading tasks.)

Feel free to borrow any of the above, as necessary. Consider it my gift to all. Now get back to grading, you slackers!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

In a studied avoidance of grading over the past few days, I've been catching up on my popular culture addictions, which, if you're a regular reader here, you know include prime time television and fashion magazines.

It may well be the case that I'm getting old and not realizing it (in fact, I'm sure that that's true). This hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time upon turning 26, when I realized I was no longer eligible to be on The Real World. [Given what's going on over on the Denver season, I suppose I should be happy about that.] Since then, however, I keep happening upon these instances in which those who create the popular culture artifact seem to post-date a fairly dubious association with its content. How about a concrete example, to save that previous tortured sentence?

1) There's a commercial on currently, which could be a Taco Bell commercial, in which a young man is eating something in the back seat of a car, flanked by two young women. Clearly, he's having the time of his life, sandwiched in between these two. "Gee," someone in the audience thinks, "that looks great! I should have one of those too!" Until one hears the song, which is Stealer's Wheel singing "Stuck in the Middle with You." Now, I suppose if you weren't watching R-rated films in 1992, you might be fine with this song; its got a bit of a chirpy pop hook, I suppose. But if you WERE able to get into Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in '92, all you associate with that song is getting your ear hacked off by a suave, dancing psychopath. Yum. Pass the chalupa.

2) Will Smith and son grace the cover of the current issue of Entertainment Weekly. When you get to the interview, the magazine has it's typical sidebar reviewing the actor's best works. The title of the sidebar? "Triumph of the Will." Clever, right? Unless you associate that with Leni Riefenstahl making propaganda films for the Nazi's, of course! Oy. Or perhaps someone at EW really has it in for Will Smith? (Didn't we all, after the summer of getting jiggy with it.)

Sigh. Two examples of ways in which, at my tender age, I've fallen out of the market demographic. Either that, or toddlers have taken over pop culture production. Perhaps both.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled grading drudgery.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

I Am Jack's Horrible Case of Adult Senioritis (with apologies to Chuck Palahniuk)

I very clearly remember my last month or so of college, when I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with my life or my bizarre degree*, but the sun was shining and my friends were out on the quad playing music and I couldn't give less of a crap about my senior thesis or my senior project. All I wanted to do was lay on the grass and feel the sunshine and take a nap.

Well, here, it's cold and gray, and I have a slight idea what my bizarre degree (TM) has bought me, but I could still give a crap about all that I have to do between now and going to my parents house for Christmas. If I had just finished up my set of late papers and sent approx. 20,000 emails and written a few recommendations today, I'd have about 8 hours before all hell broke loose and final papers came rolling in tomorrow. Eight precious hours to read Vogue, go to Target and buy a lamp, have breakfast at my favorite spot, pluck my eyebrows...(these may indeed be the adult equivalent of laying on the grass and feeling the sunshine. Sad.)

Instead, I spent 3 hours this morning researching the differences among Course Management Systems. Not for work. Not because I've been appointed to some committee from hell. No, because the tyranny of Blackboard has gotten on my last nerve and I wanted to know what my options are. This, my friends, is adult senioritis at its worst. Does anyone remember picking fights with your friends in your senior year, simply to manufacture drama so that you'd have an excuse not to work? Ummm, me neither. Nope. Not here.

Sigh. There's no helping it now. I'm off to read student work, before the deluge.

But those of you who don't have to teach any more classes? I am Jack's bile-laden kidney. Fie upon thee and thy early-ending semesters.

*I went to one of those "no majors, no grades" institutions, where many people graduated with degrees titled "The Human Condition." Seriously.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

One New Class! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Given the count of meetings and meeting times that we've been crunching over the last day or so (although I realize I forgot my godforsaken departmental committee meeting, which happens twice a month. My forgetting of it is probably the truest metric for how much I HATE going to it that I could ever come up with...), I suppose the Quizilla result below shouldn't surprise me (hint: I'm not the Sesame Street character who gets tickled...)

Here's one more count for you, while we're at it: in one of the multiple conversations going on right now about how we calculate time spent in meetings, Dr. Crazy describes the "invisible work" faculty do:"I think another reason why perhaps faculty complain about meetings is because the time spent in them is ultimately pretty "invisible" in terms of things like performance review/prt review" (see her full comment over on Profgrrrrl's post). If meetings are one type of work that goes unacknowledged when it comes time to assess your body of work, let's reveal another one. How many new courses have you designed and taught in your time at your current institution? This is my fourth year. By the end of the spring semester, I will have created 17 new courses. That's just over 4 courses a year for 4 years. That's a whole "boatload" (or insert another choice metaphor here) of research behind each course, not counting the ways in which I've investigated pedagogies that best fit the objectives of each class. In addition, it means a good number of days spent teaching at the edge of my knowledge of a new topic, rather than in the comfortable seat of my expertise. Exciting and exhausting, simultaneously. As far as I know, there is no tenure-file document that requests that information, nor one that takes into account the ways that this might affect teaching evaluations.

One new class, ahhahahahaha! TWO new classes, ahhahahahahaha! [Clearly, it's time for bed...]

Which Sesame Street Muppet's Dark Secret Are You?

The Count's Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It started with a simple affection for counting and the terror it induced in others, didn't it? But now it's turned into a full-blown life-consuming chaotic nightmare of order, repetition, zealousness, and perfectionism. You used to be so grand, but now you find yourself obsessively worrying over the littlest things--like, maybe if you don't check the light switch at least once every two minutes, the electricity will go out (and damnit, you're a vampire--that shouldn't be a problem!), or maybe if you don't wash your hands until your seams are coming out, you'll get some fatal disease. Get yourself some treatment.
Take this quiz!

Quizilla |

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Whither Meetings?

I've been unable to muster the minimum of two brain cells necessary to write a blog post (let alone the half-hour or so of uninterrupted time), but I have been reading along with you all, never fear. There's an interesting thread up on Clancy Ratcliff's blog this week about academic meetings that's giving me pause. In it, she asks about how many meetings professors are really asked to attend, given the high level of griping about them (that latter comment is mine, not hers).

So, ponder with me--how many meetings are we all attending, and why are we griping? On many many occasions, I've found the phrase "I spend my life in meetings" escaping my mouth. Is it true? Let's do a count:
1. weekly department meeting
2. once monthly committee meeting
3. once monthly faculty meeting
4. once monthly school meeting
5. once monthly ACUN meeting
6. twice monthly administrative meeting
7. once monthly steering committee for interdisciplinary program meeting
8. once monthly lunch session meeting (which my colleague and I set up, so I guess we brought it on ourselves)

By my count, that's 12 meetings a month minimum, excluding meetings with students, meetings for various side projects, meetings related to administrative work, etc. Each of those listed above (as well as assorted others) lasts 90 minutes. Thus (and someone please check my math--it's not my strong point) I spend about 18 hours a month in required meetings. This is about 2/3 as much time as I spend in the classroom.

I have no idea if this is typical for the professoriate, if it's more specific to teaching at a SLAC, or if it's institution-specific. Any way you slice it, it's a lot. I can't help wondering if the school wouldn't rather have me investing that time into my research, or writing a grant, or even learning to be a better person?

One of the commenters in Clancy's thread mentions that it's not just the time that is an issue, but the use of that time. What exactly do these meetings accomplish? Many of the summons to meetings I receive oscillate between a sense of urgency (these are the issues that have to be done by this date) and an Eeyore tone of "it's the meeting time; let's get together and talk stuff through." I can't help but notice that suddenly, in the last week of courses, meetings have largely ceased; the assumption is that none of us have time to get to meetings because of finishing courses, grading, working with students, etc. This is, of course, right on the money--but it's also true during the rest of the semester. Why is it an institution-wide revelation now, but not in October?

In my most cynical moments, it's difficult not to reflect on the disciplinary nature of meetings. The message at some is: your time is not your own. You will sit here quietly for the appointed amount of time and listen. Particularly for new faculty members, this function serves two different purposes--the first to force them to recognize all of the inner workings of the institution/department/program that they don't know, and the second, and related element, to "school" them in the dynamics and etiquette of faculty interactions.

These kinds of revelations have, I hope, driven me to run a different kind of meeting. I try my best to be efficient, to make them dynamic, and to solicit ideas from newer faculty. Proactively, I can, to some extent, address the disciplinary function of meetings. But the time issue? I got nada. Any ideas on how to protect one's own time, or help your junior colleagues protect theirs?

***More on this topic up at profgrrrrl's place too!