and I'm off...

...to MLA! Where I probably won't have blog access. I'll just be storing up stories and observations to report upon my return.


party day

I got a huge box of plush dog toys super cheap online this year so the dogs had a lot of fun opening their stockings!
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Image hosted by Photobucket.com

And then my gf and I exchanged gifts and played with the dogs for several hours. Much ball tossing, rope tugging, toy disembowling, and cookie eating. Then a movie and pizza and a trip to the dog park and now we're home, all of us kind of played out but really really happy.


fever free

Throughout my illness, the dogs have been taking their jobs as nurses very seriously, staying in bed with me even when they could have been playing outside in the yard. Most of the time one or both of them have been snuggled right up against me, pinning me tightly in the bed as I slept. (They're happy about the snuggle time but I suspect they also were enjoying my elevated body temperature, since dogs run much warmer than humans do.)

Because of their natural diet, our dogs are very fresh smelling most of the time. But whenever our youngest dog gets wet (whether in the rain, or from a bath) her hair gives off this funny smell, sort of like the old-fashioned permanent smell in the old-lady hairdresser shop my mother went to when I was a kid. Acrid, bitter, sort of surprising. But as soon as she's dry,the smell goes away.

About 4 a.m. I woke up with that smell in my nose and realized that I had soaked her with my sweat as my fever broke. My clothes were drenched, the blankets were damp, but most of all G was damp, since she'd been nestled up against me. Our other dog was perched on my shoulders, keeping some of my body heat in, as my damp skin was quickly over-cooling.

So I got up and changed clothes and dried the dogs and we all went back to sleep. And today I'm much much better! Still kind of tired, but I feel more like myself. And the dogs are happy to be playing outside again, their duties as nursemaids done.



I got hit with a stomach virus yesterday -- don't know whether to blame the family party or the lunch out with friends -- both of which probably would have put me in contact with holiday germs. Ick.

I thought a lot about blogging yesterday -- but since I was only semi coherent due to my fever, it's probably just as well that I couldn't.

but hey, today I've graduated to applesauce and even a piece of toast! which seems like cuisine compared to glasses of gatorade and tea, which is all I could handle yesterday.

real thoughts to commence once I get them...


Student portraits

Student 1: He sits in the front row every day, and misses only one class all term. His writing needs some work, especially in transitioning between ideas and avoiding repetition, because he's not a native speaker. He comes to meet with me two or three times for every assignment in the course, both before and after it's graded, to go over my comments and learn about what I'm trying to teach him. He's taking several advanced level literature courses (something that is challenging for most of our native speakers, never mind someone who only came here four years ago) and we also spend time working on his close reading skills. In the schooling he received in his country of origin, students were not expected to write essays based on their own arguments or opinions; they were only supposed to learn the teacher's words by rote memory. It is a huge paradigm shift for him to try and succeed in this educational culture which prizes logical argument and clarity of expression. He learns to recognize the differences in what is expected of him here, so that even if he is not always successful in crafting his written arguments, he can analyze and learn from his mistakes. When I suggest that he read a book on improving his syntax & style, he actually does, and I can see the results as his writing improves. He brings in ideas from his philosophy class and tries to relate them to the literary texts we're reading. He is engaged with the material and actively trying to improve his writing. He was not an A-level student when he entered my class, but his commitment to fulfilling all assignments, to benefit from the opportunity to get comments on drafts, and his A+ final exam brought his final grade up to A-. A grade I was happy to give him.

Student 2: Her attendence was extremely erratic, so much so that for a while I thought she had dropped the course. (With our student population at my U, you can usually expect to lose a few students along the way, and they often don't let you know. They just stop showing up.) But then she showed up again, briefly. When she was in class, she never participated in discussion, but sat with a sneering sulky look on her face. As I totalled up the attendance records, I realized she had only been there one-third of the course days. She turned in only two of the weekly assignments. But her writing is very strong and I think she's smart. Her first paper was good enough that I checked it several times for plagiarism. Her oral presentation was also very good. Her lack of involvement in the course was all the more frustrating to me because I sensed that she was naturally a strong student. She never turned in her final paper, not when it was due nor during the grace period I allow for late work (specified very clearly in my syllabus). Her final exam was at the C level, but because she'd missed so much work, her final grade was an F. Two days after turning in my final grades, she emails me her final paper, saying "I know it's probably too late to be graded." I glanced at it, even though I'm not accepting it for a grade, and sadly, it's a very strong paper. If she'd turned it in on time, she'd have passed the course. (just barely, but she probably would have passed). If she had a medical or personal situation that required accomodation, I would have been more than happy to help her. But never once did she contact me with an explanation about her absences or her missing work. I don't know what her story really is.

One of the qualities I try to cultivate in myself as a teacher is an attitude of generosity. I gladly spent long hours working with Student 1, because that's part of my work as a teacher. I make myself available to students during regular office hours and via email. I make accomodations for students with special needs, with medical conditions, or with family situations that cause them to miss class or fall behind in their work. My courses require regular assignments to be turned in -- some of which are graded simply on a particpation basis, so that if you do them, you get full credit. So putting forth serious effort actually does improve your course grade. I don't penalize students for missing class, but point out to them that if they miss too many classes, their assignments will necessarily suffer.

I don't think, however, that it would be generous to simply grade Student 2's four-week-late paper and give her a passing grade. I've thought a lot about this over the past two days. If she had contacted me at any time during the semester with a reasonable explanation -- a medical condition, for instance -- I would have worked with her either to establish due dates for her written work and a plan to improve her attendance, or to give her the passing-Withdrawal grade. But from everything I've seen of Student 2's behavior, she's smart enough that she thinks she can get by without doing the things that are required of everyone else. She's got an issue with authority, maybe some sort of issue with being in school at all. In a small-section (30) lecture-discussion course, you can't just act the way you might in a large lecture format course. You can't just read the books and still ace the exam. Part of the work of the course happens during the class. Otherwise I could just proctor study hall every day instead of actually teaching.

I feel frustrated with Student 2 -- and I felt frustrated with her during the semester, too. I'll always feel that I could have somehow tried harder to reach her. But her performance in my class is not only my responsibility -- it's also hers.


I can see the finish line

I'm getting really close. Everything is graded, and almost everything is entered into the spreadsheet. I still have to convert some letter grades to numbers and finalize a couple of formulas that are dependent on the number of class days etc. I already combed through my email inbox for any stray response papers that I hadn't printed out and therefore already entered into the gradesheet. I'm getting really close to wrapping this up. But I lost some of my momentum at 5:45 when I knew I wouldn't be done in time to get to yoga. (And then I got sidetracked deleting a bunch of other old emails that I no longer need to keep.) For some reason, the final calculation of grades always takes me longer than I think -- even though the spreadsheet does a lot of the work. Even once I clean up the formulas, then I still have to eyeball the grades, and make sure they make sense. And then do the scantron sheet, since we're still stuck in the quadplicate paper forms era at my U. But it's really the decisions that slow me down -- is this student's participation grade really a B or an A? etc.

But the end is really, really, near. And it really wasn't too bad, since this was a light teaching semester for me.

And tomorrow is going to be the most enjoyable day off EVER. I'm going to sleep! and read! and go to yoga! and go to the gym! and go out to lunch! and maybe even catch a movie. I'm going to just totally play, all day long. Saturday will be time enough to begin working on my 9,000 projects slated for the winter break.

how to have fun on Thursday

How to have fun (or is that "fun"?) at work:
  • drink SBX with extra shots in it
  • change pens periodically while grading final exams
  • be meeting in a windowless conference room when the power goes out
  • be within six hours of wrapping up the semester . . .


the Wikipedia thing

I first read about the latest Wikipedia "controversies" on Monday, though it's apparently been going on for a while.

The flurry of media attention was drawn to Wikipedia because John Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today criticizing the site's open-access approach to information because he had been named in an entry related to the Kennedy assassination. His essay focuses on the impossibility of tracking down who wrote false statements about him, and criticizes Wikipedia writers as "volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects". While his personal sense of outrage is perhaps understandable, his essay clearly shows the gap between older conceptions of publishing and what the web really offers. Several things come to mind.

First, why didn't he just change the entry himself? or have one of his minions do it? (In the past few days, on the heels of this issue, Wikipedia has changed the rules so that only registered users will be able to contribute information, allowing all changes to be tracked to a particular user.)

Second, no one with any sense would take a Wikipedia article on a super-controversial (and potentially wacky) topic like the Kennedy assassination very seriously.

The man who wrote the false information about Seigenthaler has since apologized and been fired from his job. He apparently didn't think any one used Wikipedia as a serious information tool. That doesn't mean it's justifiable to write a slanderous statement as a prank. But the status of Wikipedia as an information source is somewhere between "totally non serious" and "acceptable to teams of establishment experts."

Entries on tamer stuff don't change that often and are generally pretty reliable (you want to learn who were the key names in the history of, say, watchmaking, you can quickly check Wikipedia and then go forward with your research). But certain topic stems are of course magnets for opinionated folks, and the site editors can't keep up with everything. But usually (and I don't know why this didn't happen in this case) some other opinionated writer will step in and change it again.

The head of Wikipedia has now come out suggesting that no one should cite the site, but that it should be used as a starting point for further research. He also points out that no one doing real research should be citing any sort of encyclopedia, because the kinds of information they provide are very limited and prone to error.

But that doesn't mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater is the right response either, and Seigenthaler's mutterings about how Congress "enabled" and "protects" Wikipedia writers suggest a deep distrust of new media that risks violating the free exchange of information and opinion.

I think Wikipedia is one of the great things on the web -- largely because it shows (like some other key online ventures like Ebay) that much of the time, most of the people are mostly good intentioned. The fact that volunteers with knowledge about particular topics choose to spend their time writing about them is pretty awesome. Wikipedia is also extremely flexible and dynamic, allowing it to register developments in popular culture and slang that never make it in to print or print-equivalent sources. There are topic stems that also wouldn't make it into the traditional information architecture. The web gives voice to information and opinions from a much broader range of persons than any traditional medium.

Of course the media loves controversy. So items that encourage paranoia and distrust of internet-based communication, commerce, or culture always get more play than items celebrating those things.

Seems like there's lots of teachable material in this event for instructors at all levels...


guess it'll have to be a 1000 words

It looks like this is yet another year when we won't be sending a photo holiday card. You know, the cheery picture-equals-all-the-words-not-written kind of glossy holiday card that I've been receiving from many of my friends in the past few years. I'd much rather get a photo card that just has a signature scribbled on it than a regular card that's just signed. Alas, I know that the days are long past when I could count on personal notes or letters tucked into the xmas cards. I still tend to write a few sentences at least in the cards I send -- it's one of the holiday rituals that I really enjoy. I like to receive cards, and I also like sending them. Although I've been kind of slack about it over the past couple of years, and so the number that I receive is slowly dwindling. Plus so many of us are email-only these days -- some friends I don't even have postal addresses for any more.

I like to give and get holiday cards. I've usually picked handsome arty cards or lefty environmental cards, always with the most secular message I could find.

I've never liked having my picture taken. I'm only recently a camera user & owner myself. I have very few pictures of myself past the age of ten -- I tend to close my eyes, double my chin, stare off vacantly, and generally ruin almost any picture I'm in.

So why, I wonder, have I been so interested in creating a photo card? About three years ago my gf and I managed to get ourselves and the two dogs lined up in front of the camera with its timer on, and got a semi-decent picture after several tries. It was too late in the year to actually print them and mail them (plus I was new to the whole digital photo printer thing), but I did send email holiday greetings with the picture.

That was the closest we've come. Every year we talk about taking a picture. The week before Thanksgiving, a friend was supposed to come to the park with us to get our picture -- we'd discovered that we were dressed kind of nicely that day, all by accident. But she didn't show up, the daylight was dwindling, and we had a guy we know from the park take a few pictures of us. We were so close. Unfortunately, the only pics that came out (he was a little shaky, and the dogs weren't exactly sitting precisely still) were taken from too far away -- they're not going to work for the photo card, and when cropped they're too low resolution.

And ever since Thanksgiving we've been too busy. So I think tomorrow I need to go to the bookstore and pick out some cards to send this year, without a picture. But considering that I hate the way I look in pictures, and that I don't usually want my picture taken, it is actually kind of strange that I've been wanting to do a photo card. I guess it has something to do with making my life real and visible to my long distance friends, some of whom have never met my partner or our dogs. Perhaps a kind of counterbalance to all the breeders & baby pictures that my mailbox fills up with.


Dr Grumpy

I've been buried under a stack of job files -- our searches having been somewhat delayed by the Provost's office, our incompetent clerical staff, and the endless meetings about procedures required by the U's legal departments. This is the fifth search I've been on from the hiring side of things -- and the first since getting tenure. It does feel a little bit different this time around -- but I'm not entirely sure if it's how I've changed or the circumstances of this search.

I've always felt that the work leading up to hiring decisions was one of the most important kinds of departmental service I could do -- after all, as someone relatively early in my career (and especially now that I have tenure), I have a vested interest in helping to choose people who could be my colleagues for a Very Long Time. Plus, my department includes a couple of tenured faculty who it is widely felt were not the right choices -- so I've seen how mistakes in hiring (and tenuring) can really burn a department or college.

Reading job files always simultaneously makes me feel excited (new smart people! interesting topics!) and depressed ((1) all these smart people who have lousy jobs or don't have jobs at all and (2) all these not-so-smart people who shouldn't ever have been encouraged to get a PhD at Crap University because now what are they going to do, really?). During my first couple years in the job I would sometimes also feel a bit anxious about my own qualifications -- why did I have a job when obviously there were so many other super smart more accomplished people out there. Happily for me, I don't get that anxiety any longer from the job applications. I'm far enough removed from the fresh-PhD stage of things to not feel competitive with these folks. In fact, many of them seem outrageously young and unformed to me. (I do get imposter syndrome anxiety from other things, like reading the MLA convention program, but that's for another post.)

But today, I'm feeling like Dr Grumpy. The sheer burden of reading approximately 700 pages of writing samples in a subfield that is not my own, in order to prepare for a meeting that will undoubtedly result in one colleague insisting on more meetings, another only championing the male candidates, and a third stomping out of the room in a huff -- combined with the work I still need to finish in giving & grading exams, calculating final grades, and oh, yes, grading some late papers -- has me kind of off-kilter. If I can just make it to the 20th, all will be well. But getting to the end of the semester feels like a long haul right now.


rethinking grading

I'd really thought I could get through this set of papers without blogging about them, without complaining about them. After all, I was so virtuous, I even graded some of them on Friday night. And the assignment I'm grading is a potentially interesting one that allows for creative or original responses on the part of the students. So they're not as dreary to read as some more traditional critical essays. (Also harder to plagiarise.)

But then I just didn't get much further with the grading over the weekend. It is the one thing that I truly seem to procrastinate on -- much worse than on anything else in my life. Even when it's not so painful, it's really hard to make myself sit down to do it. Especially since I was trying to grade at home -- I'd been at the office so much that I wanted to be at home with the dogs, all cozy on the couch. Which was great, but it also set me up to be distracted and interrupted.

So once I wrap up here at the office, I'm off to the cafe, where it will be warmer than my house (I hope), and where there will be anxious kids studying for the LSAT and med students doing whatever they do with flash cards. My best studying-related memories from college are all about being in places where other people are also working -- the undergraduate library's armchairs, the heavily varnished tables in the magazine room, the late-night coffees at the divey Italian place. In grad school, my best friend would come over to study -- we'd work for a few hours, breaking now and then for coffee or a snack. It was companionable but not overly distracting. I think that's the key. Working in total isolation can make me feel really put upon -- at least when it's a task I'm not really engaged with anyway.

I need to figure out a way to reframe grading as intellectual work. Because I think that's the problem -- it feels more like service, or adminstration, or other energy draining aspects of the job.

Or, maybe I can teach my dogs to grade papers for me...


ETA for EOS: 13 days

Tonight is the first holiday party we have to go to. There's the "official" one for faculty hosted by my Department's Chair next week -- but tonight is the one that a colleague holds nearly every year -- a kind of selection from the dept, faculty and grad students, are usually invited. Since she caught me in the hall and said "you're coming on Saturday, right" I kind of have to go. And most years, it's been reasonably enjoyable. I'm just rarely in the party-going spirit at this time of year -- we're still teaching classes, stacks of papers are waiting to be graded, and there's a long final push to get this semester wrapped up.

And yet, at the same time, I'm also so over this semester already. My thoughts are with next term's classes, and more urgently with the work I hope to accomplish over the winter break. I spent the afternoon with my research instead of with the papers that I ought to grade -- but it feels like that was a good choice. Because it's all too easy for me to lose contact with my intellectual self, and just let the day-to-day task oriented self run the show. Especially right now, when there are job files to read and papers to grade and meetings to attend.


Flux is fun

We went to an early matinee of Aeon Flux today, along with a few other hardcore film nerds and Friday slackers, and TOTALLY enjoyed it. The story's ingredients are familiar (philosophical issues around cloning, false consciousness, the price of privilege and comfort) but it's well done. And at a purely aesthetic level, the film is great -- beautiful art direction, costumes, lighting -- the whole look of it was very appealing to me. If you like dystopic SF with style, this is your movie. Plus, it was directed by a woman! (all too rare in SF) I can't compare it to the animated segments shown on MTV back in the day, since I didn't have a TV then and only heard about the show. But as a standalone film, I really liked it. (If you liked Gattaca, Fifth Element, Dark City, and/or Matrix 1, run, don't walk, to this one. But I certainly don't need to tell you that, if you liked those films.)

And let's hear it for kickass sexy action heroines -- we also got to see the trailer for Underworld: Evolution (the sequel), which looks equally delicious.


meetings, meetings, tra la la

As the end of semester nears, and Meeting Season is upon us -- that joyous time when each and every university, college, and department committee feels that it must hold a meeting in order to finish undone business -- comparisons between one's department and family relationships inevitably arise. Although I am not related by blood to any of my colleagues, I am, in fact, stuck with most of them, just as one is more or less stuck with one's relations. These are some of the members of my department -- recognize any of them?
  • Vague Busy Dad (aka The Chair) -- um, he's Dad. Everyone obeys him but talks rebelliously behind his back.
  • Grampa Sleepy -- he's a jolly sort of guy who snoozes in the corner of meetings until someone jostles him awake with a question about the library committee.
  • Great-Uncle Fred -- a bitter, querolous man who begins every comment with "Well, 25 years ago, we decided..."
  • Wacky Aunt Sue -- wears handmade necklaces and has been known to sing during lectures.
  • Uncle Bill -- Terrifies the kids by always asking them "so, young man, how's your tenure file?"
  • Marsha (older sister) -- Marsha was once the only princess, and the prettiest in all the land. She's jealous of those who came after her, but she still tries to be the prettiest.
  • Joe (aka Class Clown) -- Joe is the quintessential middle child always seeking attention. He frequently interrupts discussions with off-topic (and sometimes off-color) jokes.
  • Little Betty -- still a girl after all these years. She doesn't have to take responsibility for anything, because she's just so, you know, girly.
  • Eugene the Nerd -- kind of smelly, kind of awkward, kind of sweet in his own way.
  • Serious Stan and Ann -- the Twins who work hard, keep their rooms clean, and seem so perky that you just have to suspect a Deep Secret lurking somewhere.
  • Whiny Toddler I -- he is always convinced that he needs something shiny, something that someone else has.
  • Whiny Toddler II -- has learned that flinging himself on the ground and screaming will get attention.
  • Tired Mom -- wants everyone to just settle down and agree on something.
And me? I'm afraid that I'm becoming The Babysitter -- the responsible older child you trust just enough to keep the little ones from burning down the place.