Thursday, August 31, 2006


George Williams (link thanks to Mel)asks some interesting questions about teaching. I've been thinking about how my teaching practices have and haven't changed over time.

One thing I learned (and have written about on this blog) is that the either/or of the "sage on the stage" vs. "guide on the side" model has its limitations. Although I'm convinced that students learn most when they're coming up with the ideas, they don't always value their insights unless you're there writing ideas on the board as the students articulate them, nodding, actively listening to what they're saying. The best classes aren't taught; they're built from the insights of the students. It's invisible teaching and the hardest kind to do.
And sometimes a short lecture works really well. Admit it: don't you like to listen to a well-told story, one with some point and drama to it, especially if it's clear that the person telling the story is passionate about the subject? I do. Good lecturing is a higher level of good storytelling; it conveys ideas vividly and sets the stage for the discussion to follow. Like a good storyteller, a lecturer ought to know when to shut up. I heard a moderator say this one time at the beginning of an all-faculty meeting: "Remember, if you're the speaker, no one in the audience is having as good a time listening as you are talking."

I've also learned that it's important to realize that you may not see yourself as a performer, but the students do. As Slaves of Academe says in a post about teaching,"Put down by critics on the left and the right, academics are some of the hardest working entertainers in the Biz." It's a tightrope performance, and it can leave you breathless, figuratively speaking, especially in those moments when the students' ideas converge and there's an "aha!" moment.

I also learned early that the no-fault, full-disclosure syllabus is your friend. What I mean by that is that if you build in some "get out of jail free" cards (drop a low quiz grade, set a fair attendance policy), you won't have to play Queen for a Day (remember Alice Walker's mention of this in "Everyday Use"?) as students vie to come up with the most pathetic excuses. They're adults; we ought to treat them that way.

That brings me to a difficult issue: how do we ensure that they're doing the reading? I've tried a lot of possibilities (weblogs, questions, reading journals, short writings, listservs, Blackboard/WebCT discussion boards, etc.) and still use some of them; in fact, I'm especially pleased with the blog assignment I've devised for this semester.

But I also use (avert your eyes) the much-despised quiz on occasion. Although I agree with Dr. Crazy that these can be "infantilizing" to students, I don't think they have to be.

Here's why: quizzes helped me to learn to read literature. As an undergrad, I had a professor in a Victorian novels course who'd give us daily quizzes, which at first the class hated. Some of the questions were logical, and some, we thought, were insanely specific: "What kind of flower did X send to Y?" "What was the title of the book that A gave to B?" "What brand of perfume did Z buy before the party?"

Now, anyone can cruise through a Sparknotes site and get the general idea of The Scarlet Letter or Vanity Fair, but questions like this are too idiosyncratic and detailed for the Sparknotes crowd. When writing an in-class short essay, Sparknotes students can gas on for quite a while about plot and character, even themes, and if they're good writers, as teachers we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But the quizzes in that Victorian lit class separated the sheep from the goats when it came to the reading. They made us learn to mark up our books and write notes in the margins. They kept us honest.

More than that, we (okay, I) got to like them. It became like a Jeopardy game to see how many I could get right. And better still, it taught me to look, really look, at the details and ask why. What did that choice mean? What did it say about the character and the work? Why would a character choose a rose and not a violet, for example? That led to discussions about the language of flowers, courtship rituals, and the rest, discussions that wouldn't have been possible unless we'd read the book closely. Like a lot of students, I could be led but not pushed, and those quizzes led me by piquing my curiosity and, let's face it, by stimulating my sense of competition. Haven't you ever gone over a quiz in class and heard students saying "Yes!" as they get the answers right? It was a test, but not a high-stakes one, so there wasn't any pressure. But it was a test, so a natural competitive drive makes you want to get it right.

So although it's not at all fashionable, and although I use a lot of other methods as well, I still think that the lowly quiz has a place in the classroom: five to ten questions, short answer, know it or don't. And I still remember some of the questions--and answers--from that Victorian novels class.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Not about academics

This post might come down shortly, since it's really OT, but it's big news in my life.

This weekend, I did something I have not done for 12 years. After 12 years of driving an increasingly ancient car, I bought a new car. A Prius. It's terrific.

Now, when you drive an old car for years and years, your expectations for a new one are low to begin with: "Power windows? You don't have to crank them up? And you mean it has a CD player instead of a cassette deck?" But this really is a nice car.

Some observations:

  • It gets good mileage, though nowhere near the touted 61/50 highway/city mpg.
  • It has plenty of power to pass other cars on a hill, if you have to do that.
  • Everything (radio, climate control) is controlled by a touch screen with lots of instant updates as to the car's status (mpg, temperature, etc.). It beeps when it's in reverse, like a truck.
  • You can't see the front hood at all when you're sitting in the car.
  • I thinkthe driver of a big 4WD pickup truck with an extra-long cab looked at the car with envy as I drove away from a stoplight. I like to think it was envy and not disdain.

    Sure, I bought it because being a little more green helps, and after all, being a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging college professor is my job. But this car is fun!
  • Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    First Day and CSI: Office

    The first day of classes went well. What can you talk about, really, except the idea behind the course and the syllabus? That's easy if you really care about the subject, although I still heave a huge sigh of relief when the first day is over.

    I also spent some time cleaning up my office. This is nowhere near the chore it was when I first moved in a few years ago. I spent a lot of time then with Windex and paper towels, trying to figure out what the previous tenants had done when they were there.

  • Those nuts and seeds in the desk: did they keep hamsters in there? Feed the squirrels? Or were they just really, really dedicated to some variety of granola whose wholesome rocky goodness I could only imagine by seeing those seeds?
  • The tape all over the desk: was this an elaborate Hallowe'en prank gone awry? Did someone have that many pictures to be nailed down? Had I inherited the desk of Les Nessman?
  • I know what they did for sport: threw coffee at the door. Or something. Maybe they crashed into the door regularly with open coffee mugs while on their way to class.
  • But they did leave me presents: a nonfunctional pushbutton phone, a phone book from 1990, and enough departmental interoffice envelopes to start a bonfire.
  • Monday, August 21, 2006

    Let the games begin

    Classes start tomorrow, and for a change, I am ready (sort of).

  • Syllabi done and copied? Check.
  • Met with co-teachers for team-taught course? Check.
  • Wrestled WebCT to a standstill so that it will follow my will instead of what passes for logic in its demented system? Check. Mostly.
  • Finished the merciless bear of a piece of writing that has been wrestling me to a standstill for the past three weeks? Check, thank God.

    Still to go:
  • Background lecture ready for one of the classes? Um, no.
  • Check status of clothing other than the hiking/canoeing shorts I've been living in for the past few months? No.
  • Treat myself to the new calendar and other school supplies that I'd dearly love to buy? Not yet. That's a treat saved for Friday.
  • Sunday, August 20, 2006

    Retail therapy, academic style

    Not that I can't benefit from the occasional raid on Nordie's as much as the next person; given the academic tendency toward frumpitude, I'd probably benefit from more of them. Clothes shopping doesn't constitute retail therapy for me, though.

    The real thrill, a la The Little Professor, is that yesterday I picked up a full set--16 volumes!--of an author I work on for $95. That's $95 for the whole set, or less than $1.60 a volume.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    Random Quotations Meme

    As seen at Professional Mirror, Professorial Confessions, and Reassigned Time:

    1. Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.
    Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

    Comment: You get to be rude to me once, maybe, if your house is on fire or something. Rudeness is the eighth deadly sin.

    2. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
    Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

    3. Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.

    Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784), (attributed)

    Comment: If it wouldn't violate quotation #1, there are some times when I'd like to write this on a manuscript review.

    4.Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    5. Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.

    Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790), 'Poor Richard's Almanack,' June 1746

    Tuesday, August 15, 2006

    WebCT encourages voluntary simplicity

    After years of competition, Blackboard and WebCT merged last year in what some academic sites promoting open source models saw as a Satan I-Satan II hookup. After using several versions of Blackboard over the past few years and then WebCT, I'm impressed with the sneaky brilliance of the newest version (6 something). It is brilliance, right, to have more and more features but fewer and fewer useful ones in each version? My conclusion: WebCT must be nudging us toward the voluntary simplicity movement.

    So far:

  • Course banner? Nah, there's no place for it, although you can put it as an image link in the header. Voluntary simplicity step #1: Write an "image source" tag instead of messing with the banner in WebCT.
  • Announcements? There's an announcements feature, to be sure, and they are mysteriously "sent" somewhere. I don't know where; they don't appear on the first page of My WebCT Classes or on the class page itself. You can click on the "Announcements" link to read them, but why, oh why, aren't they on the opening page as they were back in, say, Blackboard 3? Instead, the "Course Content" shows up on the opening page, like it or not, complete with your choice of icons. Voluntary simplicity step #2: Use the header function for announcements.
  • Course menu? In Blackboard and WebCT4, you could arrange it to suit yourself, including making indented sub-menus for various people's syllabi, but not now. Voluntary simplicity step #3: Make a web site and link to the syllabus there.

    Okay, there is a "student view" in this version, although you can't use it to test any features that you might want to test, like chat or the whiteboard. And they've gotten rid of the multi-step process by which you approve or "release" information using "update student view"--at least this is what I'll choose to believe until a student e-mails me with "Dr. Undine, I can't find that reading you said you put in WebCT."

    But my conclusion about this version is that WebCT is slowly but surely nudging us toward the purity of the web without any pesky course management systems to mess it up. Simplify, simplify.
  • Saturday, August 12, 2006

    How to tell when you're too tired to work any more

  • You are making notes on a book and write this sentence: "Baby vampires set to work on wrappers." The book is not about baby vampires, or any kind of vampires, for that matter.
  • The automatic utility on your backup hard drive kicks in and you think it is some song by a new artist that Pandora thinks you might like.
  • You are not longer sure whether the lights on your desk are on. They are. Your eyes have closed.
  • The cat stretches and gets down from the top of the filing cabinet where she keeps you company all day to go and shed fur on the chair where she sleeps at night.
  • Tuesday, August 08, 2006


    The other night, a group us, all women, gathered for a party at a friend's house. (The friend is having surgery--not serious, except that all surgery is serious.) We talked and joked and drank wine and ate more dessert than we needed because, hey, if three people bring dessert, you eat three desserts so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. We sat outside in the summer heat and didn't watch the sunset because we were laughing too hard.

    We were all ages, from a new assistant prof to more senior people. We told stories. We reminded each other of stories that ought to get told.

    I didn't call this post "womenfest" or "womynfest" because we didn't sit around and talk about empowerment. We just felt it in each other's company.

    This is what summer ought to be like.

    Sunday, August 06, 2006

    You're on Notice!

    You're on Notice!
    Originally uploaded by undines.
    Fun timewaster based on the Colbert Report's "on notice" board. List generated at

    Friday, August 04, 2006

    Preparation for teaching

    Dr. Crazy has already responded to ghw's call for posts about teaching, and here's a short response to one of the questions posted.

    What kind of preparation for teaching did you get in grad school? Was it adequate?

    The preparation I had was considered good at the time but would probably be considered inadequate today. Those of us with tutoring experience (which I'd had) were put right into the classroom after an intensive few weeks of late-summer preparation, and our weekly seminar combined practical advice with theoretical readings. Some, like Mina Shaughnessy's classic Errors and Expectations, were genuinely useful. Others discussed points obvious to anyone with a lick of common sense in solemn and elaborately obfuscatory language as though they were reluctantly imparting the key to the Holy Grail. These works were useful, too, for learning that while complex ideas sometimes cannot be expressed in "clear" language, dressing up simple ideas in complex language doesn't result in theoretical complexity.

    Although we had mentors who gave us feedback on our teaching as well as the helpful seminar, we really learned the most from the other TA's. The experienced ones could tell us how they taught "A Modest Proposal" or comma splices without resorting to the dreaded "lecturing," which was implicitly forbidden. We passed around assignments and techniques, talked about problem students, and moaned about grading papers.

    I did learn one other lesson. During one seminar, we were invited to talk about our teaching problems. From all those hallway and office doorway conversations, I knew that we all had a few: X was stumped over what to do with a student's third "dead grandmother" excuse of the semester, Y had a bunch of basketball players who'd pack up and leave whenever she had them do group work, and Z couldn't get his group of zombies to talk about any essay, ever. My classes were going pretty well, but I did have one problem, a bossy girl who wanted to run every group editing session according to her own feel-bad principles. The "discuss your problems" session went something like this:

    Professor: "So, what teaching problems have you encountered?"

    Undine: "Uh, there's a girl in my class who . . . (description)."

    Professor: "That's too bad, Undine, that you're having such a problem. Perhaps you could . . . {don't recall what he said)."

    Professor: "Anyone else?"

    X: "No, my classes are going just fine." Y nods, and Z agrees. The whole class nods, pitying Undine for her ineptitude.

    The lesson I learned, in case you haven't figured it out yet, was know when to shut up.