Monday, January 28, 2008

Faculty (IL)Literacy

God knows we've all heard about the current state of literacy. Whether you're deriding the kids nowadays for their inability to read n' write (unlike in the good old days when they knew grammar), or banging the drum for necessary inclusion of internet/computer/online environment literacies that are becoming more and more relevant----the point is that it seems like faculty, administrators and staff are all about it all the time. But what about OUR OWN literacy levels?

I could write reams about the kinds of things I've heard about what we value, how we pat ourselves on the back for our fabulous grammar, our stupendous research and writing skills---man, can we frame an argument!, our (in)ability to use new technologies, etc., etc. And I could talk myself hoarse about how we need to remember ourselves as in our most challenging moments of reading and writing when we assess our students' interactions with these activities. But forget all that complicated stuff, filled with reality checks, contingencies and best practices for a changing textual landscape. What I really want to talk about is faculty illiteracy at its most basic, brass tacks levels.

People, in the last year, I have been at at least three meetings in which single page documents were distributed to faculty members. In two of these three cases, the documents were distributed at least a WEEK before the meeting, so people would have time to read it in advance. And at all three meetings, I have seen an inability to read and interpret the information on the page. And for the record, these were not complex, multivalent statements with an array of embedded clauses, a la Henry James. No, we're talking bullet points of data here! Do I have an example? Sure do!

1) "In the past, the FooFoo program has used one class to deliver this material. Next year, the FooFoo program would like to distribute this material over two classes. This experiment would bring FF into line with national models."
Question: How has this two-class model worked for us in the past?

2) "358 students in the FooFoo program thus far have moved into department-sponsored courses."
Statement: It's great that 358 students have chosen a major!
Rebuttal from a different fac. member: They haven't chosen a major! They're just taking inter-departmental classes!

You see the problem here, right? If I had students in a course who were having this kind of difficulty, I'd work with them on the principles of reading closely and at a literal level. That would be my go-to strategy. "Underline the important terms and ideas, and translate these into your own words by writing your ideas in the margins." "Make sure that you understand exactly what the author is saying before you make an evaluative judgment about the information." I can hardly turn to a colleague in a meeting and say this, but I have, of late, been tempted to pull a highlighter out of my bag and to whip it at the person.

Rather than resort to violence and defenestration, however, I'm considering starting up a remedial reading class for faculty members. There could be an anonymous recommendation process, and if you received more than 3 recs from your colleagues, you'd be required to attend a weekend workshop. Or maybe there should be a demerit system, in which you'd get a red card every time you radically misunderstood/willfully misinterpreted a clause in a public arena.

These suggestions, however, look at literacy training as punitive. Perhaps I could put a positive spin on it: reading documents and understanding what people are saying help you achieve social and professional mobility. It increases communication, and allows you to achieve better understanding among your peers. Excellent literacy skills can improve the quality of your life---learn to enjoy reading, understanding, and analysis!

The carrot or the stick. It matters not to me. It takes a village, people. Won't you volunteer to help professors learn how to read?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Wakka Wakka

Of the many things on my now-defunct Christmas list, fleece generally resides at the top. It's cold in them here parts, and it just seems that there's never enough fleece to go around, and what there is is of the type that requires three shirts underneath it to make it work. [This could also be due to the fact that we keep it at a frosty 60 degrees in the house, and the thermostat is located in the warmest room...]

So, when I found this fleece top at Athleta pre-Christmas, I thought I'd hit the mother lode:It was super fuzzy, it looked warm, and since I tend to wear a scarf in the house (see note about indoor temperature above) that big ol' collar looked as if it would do the trick. So I added it to the Christmas list, Mom came through, and I waited for it to arrive. Apparently, the thing was on back order, so I waited through Christmas, the New Year, and lo and behold, it arrived yesterday! Hooray! I snatched it from the UPS guy, ripped open the package, and charged upstairs to try it on. Holy crap is this thing soft! Warm! Love!

Once I had it on and zipped up, I modeled it for my better half. "Feel!" says I. "Soft! Warm!" And then I made the classic blunder. Never ever introduce the idea: "Of course, it feels a bit like a muppet...."

That was it. Every time I put it on, I'm now plagued by questions. Am I ready to make dinner, or am I too busy rotating my ears around? Don't I need to wear a little hat with that sweater? Do I have any dumb jokes that I want to tell? Yes folks, my new favorite sweater, apparently makes me look like this lovable creature from our childhoods:


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty Pleasures

Oh, damn those striking writers. I know that they absolutely have to declare a work stoppage, because why shouldn't they get a cut of the online profits? I know, I know. And I support them, in the abstract. But in the absence of entertainment that is crafted and smart and worthwhile, VH1 and it's evil, evil programming has eaten my brain.

There is no earthly reason why anyone should be watching Celebrity Rehab. Or Scott Baio is 46 and Pregnant. I'm fully aware of this fact. And yet, I can't tear myself away. I should be out shopping for a much-needed immersion blender right now (because there will be no scrumptions cream of tomato soup for dinner without it), and yet I can't move off the couch until I see Daniel Baldwin bitch slap Jeff Conaway. [And for the record, who knew that Daniel Baldwin existed? I thought the world didn't even need a Steven or a Billy, let alone a Daniel!] And are we ever, ever, going to be able to see Grease again after this? Or Charles in Charge re-runs? God save nostalgia for bad 80's media! [And when was the last time anyone went to VH1 for music videos? And yet their home page leads with the phrase "top music videos." Bitch, please.]

Please, please, writers. For the love of God! How on earth are we suppose to have any brain cells left to appreciate your work when you come back, if this is what we're reduced to?


Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Quality of Mercy is Strained

In large measure, I'm now operating free of the ball and chain that was my administrative appointment. I've handed over a thumb drive full of documents to the next in line---the Captain, and he's going great guns. There are, of course, a few things that still require my attention: a monumental screw-up on the part of the registrar, and, more troubling, a hold-over student who refuses to accept his fate.

The Captain and I agree, this kid is a piece of work. Cap's name for him is "the chucklehead" which is totally his name from now on. Chucklehead chose this major because of its openness (or, as he told me during his first advising meeting: "no one cares what I graduate with, and so I picked this because it requires less than anything else"). It's not true, of course, and I tried to explain that to him, but he just talked over me---one of his favorite practices.

So here's the situation: the Chucklehead had to take one of the few final major requirements in the fall semester, which involved a fair amount of independent work. He neglected to begin that work until week 8 of the semester. However, he was willing to take "full responsibility" for his own failings----in the form of an extension into the spring semester to finish it. We argued this up, down and sideways. "Not really a good idea," I told him. "You'll be in under the wire of the deadline. If anything goes wrong, you'll fail the class and have to start over. And when you do, you'll be behind again." He insisted that he could do it, and used a bunch of rhetoric about how he'd been a fighter all his life, etc., etc.

Low and behold, he has a serious accident in the final week of classes, that prevents him from finishing the class. In fact, he won't even be able to start that work for another month or so. These injuries, however, have not prevented him from calling every office on campus to find out whether I will give him an extension on his extension, rather than failing him. ["Every office" is not hyperbole. In addition to multiple registrars, other faculty members, and the Dean, he may well have discussed this with the cleaning staff.] He's told multiple versions of this story, many of which leave out the part where he didn't begin his work until mid-term, and focus on the fact that I stubbornly refuse the extension even after informed of his medical problems.

I have no objectivity in this matter. Technically, the mechanisms exist to extend the Chucklehead's class through the end of this current semester. And he does, indeed, have extenuating circumstances. What I think is my rational brain says this: I specifically and in writing asked him to consider the idea that everything had to work perfectly for his plan to work. He ignored that, which is a pattern for him. If anything defines the way that this student works, it's his ability to talk his way into exceptions and reasons why boundaries and rules should apply differently to him. [I've fielded calls from instructors about him, for example, who are afraid to give him the grade he has earned in a class because he insists to them that he's never gotten such a low grade before. These are complete fabrications, of course.] Thus, I think that by refusing the extension of the extension, I'm requiring him to live up to the decisions he made---again, in writing. This seems like an important lesson to me, and one that if he doesn't learn it here, he won't learn in college at all.

There is a nagging sense, however, that I'm being punitive when I should be merciful. If it were another student in these circumstances, would I extend the extension? Perhaps, but only if the student did not have such a persistent pattern of behavior, I like to think.

What is teaching, if not persistent self-doubt and the nagging question of what's fair when students are individuals instead of cookie-cutter versions of the same person? How happy am I to be rid of these questions on a programmatic level, rather than a classroom one?


Monday, January 14, 2008

Laughable, Man. HA!

Senor F. and I calculate that 10-15% of our communication is made up of quotes from other movies. A significant portion of that is actually quotes from the infinitely applicable Coen brothers masterpiece The Big Lebowski, from which I take the title of this post. I thought of it at least twice today:

Incident One
You know how sometimes your hair doesn't work, and sometimes the makeup doesn't work, and sometimes the outfit won't come together? And then, on rare occasions, it's an evil trifecta? Well, welcome to my day. I decided to wear a dress that I had bought, on which the neck was a little too plungy-plungy, and I couldn't find a camisole that looked right with it. [Because why are they all either lacy, or weirdly patterned, or orange, or white? Since the dress is black, orange makes it the Halloween outfit and white is a bit too caterer.] So I went for the classic: white button down shirt under black dress. That apparently solved, I smeared a hairdresser-approved product on my hair and commenced to dry. Despite the supposed straightening effects of said product, I was looking a bit fuzzy, and so I went to my old standby Aveda shine serum. Two down! Finally, I shoved some makeup on the face over sunblock. Of course, I had just spent 20 minutes with a hairdryer on full blast, and so I was sweaty and shiny from block.

Here's the long and short of it: I paused before leaving the house, and was shocked. Between the over-producted hair, the patchy makeup and the black on white outfit, I looked like a drag queen who likes to play Jane Eyre. I kept waiting for my students to ask "who ordered the governess dude?"

Incident Two
Speaking of students, I got an email today that made me laugh so hard I almost cried. Three years ago, I was teaching the dreaded survey course and I had a student we'll call Cher---because she's so incredibly clueless. In one short semester, Cher managed to accrue 7 absences (in a class that met twice a week), lie to me about having turned in two assignments, plagiarize a paper, and cheat on an exam. About halfway through the madness, I suggested to her that she withdraw from the course and try it again in a semester when she had less going on (or more going on in the student ethics department). No! She wasn't a girl who would give up! When she ended up failing the course (surprise!), she wrote me a series of emails about how she couldn't fail the course because she'd be kicked out of the college, how she was a student athlete, how she'd do anything to make it up. Sigh. F. Big Fat F.

The coda: she wrote me today to ask me to sign her into a full class. "I had you before and this topic is really interesting to me and I need three classes to graduate in the fall."

I'll spare you my obvious reaction, and leave you with the immortal words of The Jesus (post title hits at 00:35)

There is No Perfect Class

I frothed myself into a tizzy last night, as today is the first day of classes and I was, at 5 p.m., still without two syllabi. Then there was flogging of the "why didn't I do more of this over break?" and "why do I decide to teach new courses?" and "why don't I teach things in my old, familiar specialties instead of stuff that I'm learning?"

By 10 p.m., however, lulled into a false sense of security by the first episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles*, I simply started plugging in secondary readings, firmed up my last few films for one class, and the online readings for the other. Why? Because eventually I get worn down by trying to pick the perfect readings and pair them with the perfect primary texts while devising the perfect assignment for the students while devising the perfect schedule. Bitch, please. It's a good thing that the semester begins, or else I'd still be trying to read more, watch more, in hopes of making the classes perfect. So: No, Virginia, there is no perfect class.

*I went into that show with great trepidation and very low expectations. Or, in the way that we express it in this household: "Pleeez don't let this super-suck. It's going to suck, right? I mean what are the chances this isn't going to suck?" But I was much heartened by the casting of Summer Glau, also known as River Tam from The Whedon's unnecessarily-benighted series Firefly. Do you ever have a series that you think is really dumb at the time (who the hell is interested in a sci-fi western?!!), and then later figure out that it's brilliant and you were too blind to see it? Yeah, well.

And for the record, I'd link all of this stuff, but dammit, it's the first day of class and I don't know what I'm going to wear!!


Friday, January 11, 2008

Spitting and Swallowing

Now, I know what you're thinking. And while I'm more than happy to talk about whatever practices you dirty-minded people do in the privacy of your own homes, this is actually a post in reference to my life post dental surgery. Let's just say that my love for the chance to suck up some nitrous has dissolved. Unless, of course, I'm going to get some more right quick.

Since Wednesday morning, I've had a constant dull ache on the side of my tongue. It feels like a cross between having taken a cheese grater to it and a charley horse. As the day progresses, and I use it more (you know, for such optional activities as eating, drinking, and talking), it takes on a different quality. In addition to the feeling of raw and achy, on special occasions of use it gets a sharp, just-stuck-it-in-a-220 volt socket feeling that radiates from the back to the tip. Good times.

You just don't really realize how many times a day you swallow until it hurts whenever you do it. And, is it just me, or is it everyone for whom mouth pain activates the salivary glands? The more it hurts, the more I swallow. The more I swallow, the more it hurts.

So on Thursday, I called the dentist. Her office is closed on Friday, so I figured yesterday was my last chance to get things taken care of. Could she have slipped with the zapper? Is this the blowback from excessive novacaine shots? Is it bad karma from my first blissful 30 years of life without a cavity?

According to the hygenist, it's because the wound site is rough, and so my tongue is rubbing up against it and getting "irritated." I beg to differ. My tongue isn't "irritated," it's "enraged." It's about to go postal. It's 1990 Sean Penn when confronted by photographers. Regardless, the weekend treatment is to swish with hot salt water every hour or so to speed healing. Which I then quite daintily spew into the bathroom sink. I'm sure that this is in an Emily Post book somewhere---proper spitting etiquette, anyone?

So, as we enter the weekend, spare a thought for my poor tortured tongue, swallowing on the one hand, and spitting on the other.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Now THERE'S a Personality Test No One's Developed Yet

I met with my colleague yesterday afternoon, to effectuate the glorious and much-awaited hand-off of the ACUN. Praise Hera. During our conversation, he told me: "You can tell a lot about a person by which drug they like at the dentist." !!!! Someone get the Cupid people on this, stat!

While it may seem as if this is his response to being handed a program in crisis (and it may well be), it actually made sense in context. Yesterday morning, after I put my mother on the plane, I went to the dentist to have a pesky piece of extra gum tissue removed. My dentist is a weird one; she's perky, knowledgeable, a bit of a perfectionist. (In the last three months, she's tried to get me, Senor Fluff and Yogini all into braces. Been there, done that. "Yes," she says, " but this time, you're an adult! This time, you'll wear your retainer!" Don't count on it, toots.) At my last cleaning, she informed me that all was looking good in my mouth, except for the tooth that is unfortunately halfway covered by this piece of tissue. "Wait much longer and we'll lose the tooth." What a Cassandra.

So, I went in to have the tissue hacked off. But no! She's modern and technological! She uses--wait for it--an electrical current to "zap" away the tissue and cauterize the wound. "You won't need it, but do you want nitrous?" Yes, matter of fact, I do. Who am I to turn down drugs?

All I could think of when she put the little gas mask on me was the insane dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. While the video below doesn't show it, I do think he sucks down the nitrous with regularity in the film.

So I've always thought that the gas was a retro thing. But now, my friends, no more! I can totally see why people like it, even if they aren't insane sadists! How lovely is the nitrous high; like being very very drunk without having to worry about barfing. Much fuzziness and loving of everyone, and a total lack of panic when you smell you're own flesh burning in your mouth. So what if it causes birth defects? Bring it on!

This was the impetus for my colleague's comparison. According to his assessment, were I to choose a drug, I'd want the ones that made me happy, as opposed to the ones that knocked me out completely---his choice.

Such delightful variation in the world. Now back to writing syllabi.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Post-Parental Visit Post

My mother, who arrived at 1 a.m. on Jan 2, just got on a plane in Urbania to return to the city of neon. I think I can say that this is the first time that I've hosted my mother in my own house. What a way to start the year!

I believe that I've blogged about Mom before, but I'm too lazy to go and find it. The skinny is that my parents divorced when I was 7 or so, and Mom and I spent my formative years together as a unit. Because of that, we've developed a (probably unhealthy) attachment to one another; only her retirement job and my increased work load have interrupted our usual two phone call a week habits. Because this is the first time Senor F. and I haven't gone home for the holidays, she graciously (with much cajoling and trepidation on her part) agreed to come east for the New Year. It's been bitterly cold here for the first week of the year, and my poor mother--born in a tropical state--survived it with hardly a whimper. It surprises me not at all that she is a great guest, willing to do whatever kind of crap has to be done (case in point: the first day she was here, I had to go and fix the iced lock on Senor's car---he couldn't get the door to close and had to go to a meeting). She somehow managed to do all of this with much better humor than I, and then took me to lunch and the mall. (If you ever wondered where my eating/shopping habits come from, look no further).

This was a great way to begin the year, because it serves as an object lesson about the delights of generosity. My mother is really ridiculous in what she wants to give. You know the old "fighting over the bill" routine? She's got it down to a science. I've begun to think of it as a shtick that we perform for waiters, grocery store check out people, sales people at the Sephora. In the height of the "no, I'll get it!" lunacy, she raced to the door of the gas station, trying to pay the attendant before I could swipe my car. While I have to fight her tooth and nail to pay for things, it's also useful for me to remember that she wants to give us stuff (whether it be food or experiences or durable goods); it's an act that she associates with my grandparents when they came to visit her. I think she sees it as one of the acts that will solidify her role as elder, which she's all too willing to take on.

Since she's both speedy and has a grip much akin to the Kung-Fu G.I Joe one of old (play the game here!), my job is to find things she'd enjoy and doesn't get to do at home, e.g., locate new restaurants at which my step-father would never eat; take her to museums, figure out when her television shows are on, schedule a hair cut, etc. I know it doesn't sound like much, but my mother lives for other people. A lot. And so to give her the chance to do something she normally wouldn't allow herself the time to do is not a small act, I think. So while it's not monetary, this is my form of reciprocal generosity.

So in addition to the as yet unnamed year ahead [FrenchieFoo suggests "moderation" crossed with "fulfillment." Modfillment? Fulleration? Oooh, I like the second one!!], I think I'll try to focus on how to be creatively generous. And not just to my mother. Although she's not to be excluded!!

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Hello, 2008.

Holy crap, 2008. When I was a kid, we took a class field trip to the airport in hometown of neon, because it was about to be renovated. The final finishing date? 2000. I remember thinking "whoa. 2000. It will never be the year 2000!" And yet here we are, 8 years past. With that in mind, I suppose it's time for me to think about resolutions, no?

I don't have to read back over every blog post to know that the past year has been crazy. Too many projects, responsibilities, altercations; too much whinging and panic and rage and resentment. Looking at my bank account, there was also too much impulse buying. Gauging from my firmly ensconced spare tire, I'd say there was too much eating of crap, as well. Do we sense a theme here? Ah yes: apparently 2007 was the year of excess.

So, I'd like 2008 to be the year of restraint. That's not quite the word I'm looking for, as it implies holding back. What's the word that means existing in the middle---neither deprived nor glutted? Is it "measured"? [I just couldn't go with 2008 being "the year of being measured." shudder.] I'll come up with a vocabulary term for it. But here's what I'm thinking: I have a tendency to swing toward extremes and at the drop of a hat. It's part of my magpie syndrome, I think, which generally consists of this mindset: "Oooh! Look over there! Sparkly! fly great distance to see said thing, find out that it is indeed lovely, but then... "oooh! Look over THERE! Shiny!" lather, rinse, repeat. This might explain how I've managed to teach something like 24 new courses in 5 years, and how I've managed to do far less writing than I ever imagined I would. It's hard to get articles written when you keep changing your field.

Magpie syndrome is also abetted by a deep and abiding love for self-punishment, which I began trying to manage at the end of the year (see here). As in: you're not allowed to leave the house until you grade papers. 48 hours later, I'm still in my pajamas, have graded 0 papers, and have not left the house all weekend. [One of the things that happens in that 48 hours? Internet shopping. Five hours, for example, spent trying to find the perfect sweater online to match a skirt that I never wear.]

The element that holds magpie syndrome, self-punishment and online shopping together, it seems to me, is excess. (Let's not call it obsessive compulsive behavior, shall we? It's so pathological. But I do need to wash my hands.) So my theme for the year is to try to temper the excess. Does that make my theme for the year "temperance"? Like some sort of early suffragist? It's so terribly unappealing, that word. And it's not what I mean at all. What do I mean, exactly?

I want the year in which I learn to enjoy the feeling of delving deeply into things (hear that, inner magpie? Peck past the shiny!); to wring out the joy before moving on to something else. To choose projects and commitments wisely, so as to be able to engage in them fully. To do more with less. To create an economy/perpetual motion machine of energy and good will and good work. All of this, I think, is generated out of fullness, not out of a need to conserve.

Bust open those vocabularies, dear readers, and give me a theme for 2008!