Thursday, April 27, 2006

Done! (Almost)

Taught my last class yesterday--and no one left early. There are still papers to grade for one of the classes, reports to write, and a few overdue pieces of writing to finish and send--but still: done!

Back at the IHE ranch, Terry Caesar is shocked, shocked!--in fact shocked and outraged, he'll tell you--at what he thinks is the useless timewaster called collaborative learning, by which he seems to mean small group discussion.

He's right about one thing, and pretty much only one thing: I, too, learned in grad school that lecture format was the Great Satan. Collaborative learning was the only way to go. Be the "Guide on the side"--that's the ticket. I learned this so well that I was never taught to lecture, never taught to structure a short (or long) presentation that would hold a class's interest; I had to learn that on my own, prompted, really, by student requests for explanations of terms and concepts. And in the end, the "talks" or "explanations" I gave (still shying away from the L-word, although that's what the students called it) proved to be a really good method for conveying certain ideas and--this is crucial--providing a variety of classroom experiences. Group work, short lectures, classroom discussions, peer review, projects, online discussions--they all work better if there's some variety.

I think that what was lost was the idea that "collaborative learning" is a principle, not a technique. Yes, small group work, class discussions, and the rest are extremely important, but what's more important is the level of respect for students, and for student opinions, that creates the real spirit of collaborative learning. On days when the process works at its best, you're making meaning together and they're learning from each other.

It's like the "open classroom" movement back in the 1970s; the idea was a metaphor, but the schools took it literally and knocked down the walls. What I've heard from teachers who worked in these spaces was that (1) their classroom noise level hovered somewhere between "bulldozers operating" and "deafening shindy" and (2) that the teachers piled up books, boxes, and plants to make walls and preserve some sort of boundaries so that they could provide a better learning environment.

So too with "collaborative learning." It's a lot more than "sit in a circle and discuss." (And who, BTW, really sits down when the students are in groups, as Caesar charges? I never do; I'm always wandering from group to group, listening.)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Rude Student Magic

In class today (the large lecture class), I was giving a short lecture/recap of some ideas we'd been discussing, including belief systems and the logic of superstitions and magic. Among the things we discussed is the idea of magic as a psychological device to make the person employing it feel empowered. Just about everyone seemed interested.

Everyone except one girl. We take attendance by sign-in sheet, and apparently as soon as it had come around to her, she figured she was done. She got up from the back row and sauntered out the door as I was talking, a breathtaking bit of rudeness, IMHO.

There are two ways to leave a class before the end: asking permission ahead of time, and tearing out of there coughing or with your hand over your mouth as though something very unpleasant will happen if you don't leave.

She did neither.

What I did had a little magical thinking involved: I stopped talking and gave her departing back my total basilisk stare until the door closed. My glance failed to stop her in her tracks, though.

I guess this falls under the category of magic that the Dustin Hoffman character learns about in Little Big Man:

Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Elizabeth I: A Comment

Since I'd just gotten back from a conference and thought a treat was in order, I watched Part I of HBO's Elizabeth I last night. Now, Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons are usually great, and they are fine in the parts, but the breathily melodramatic tag line should have been a warning: "She held absolute power over everything . . . except her heart."

Most of the history I've read paints Elizabeth as very intelligent, highly educated (with Roger Ascham as tutor, who wouldn't be?), able to speak Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, doctrinally sophisticated, politically astute, and so on. But this Elizabeth? Not so much. This version has her barely able to eat dinner unless the Earl of Leicester is present. The famous "heart and stomach of an Englishman" speech before the troops? Leicester's doing. She's all a-flutter and doesn't know what to say to them until he flatters her in this way right before she speaks to the troops and uses his language to put heart into them.

Maybe this is so. I'm hoping that Miriam Burstein or someone will post about this.

[Edited to add] The series also has two principles of plot construction:

1. Whenever Elizabeth makes a decision (e.g., agreeing to marry the Duke d'Anjou), it's invariably a bad one from which she must be rescued by Leicester, Lord Burghley and the group of dour elders in black skullcaps who are her Privy Council, or both.

2. Whenever Elizabeth fails to make a decision (e.g., executing Mary, Queen of Scots), it's invariably a bad idea from which she must be rescued by Burghley, skullcaps, and company.

I sense a theme here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Inside Higher Ed: "The Apparently Bearable Unhappiness of Academe"

I'm just catching up with Rebecca Steinitz's "The Apparently Bearable Unhappiness of Academe" over at Inside Higher Ed. Long story short: she decided to quit her tenured position (although she's currently just on extended leave). Here's part of her reason:

"But when it came down to it, and my husband and I turned 40, we decided we did not want to spend the rest of our lives in a city we didn’t like enough, doing jobs we didn’t like enough, at places of employment we didn’t like enough, hundreds of miles away from a family we liked a lot."

The Chronicle is fond of publishing these "why I'm quitting" articles, and posters in the forums often give reasons for quitting, too; many report colleagues surprised by and/or secretly envious of their decision. Some of the commenters at IHE seem furious at Steinitz's action, at the article, or both.

Not me. I can't imagine quitting because I love what I do, but two thoughts run through my mind when I read these pieces: (1) it's nice to have enough money that you can quit a job that you just "don't like enough" and (2) hooray! another seat just opened up on the tenure-track lifeboat for everyone who's waiting for a chance.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Spring flowers

Picture 002
Originally uploaded by undines.
I haven't figured out yet how to put all the pictures in one post--sorry.

Wild turkey

Wild turkey
Originally uploaded by undines.
A barely visible wild turkey.

Tundra Swans

Swans Upended
Originally uploaded by undines.
The mystery birds are tundra swans. The white specks in the distance are the swans with their heads in the water. They obstinately refused to assume any sort of graceful and picture-worthy pose.

Friday, April 14, 2006

An Old Book Story

La Lecturess has an interesting post about a great bookstore, now closed, and the books she bought at various stages of her life.

A book I purchased a few years back, an 1891 volume of stories by an author I write about, had within its covers more than the usual pleasures of reading a first edition. When I opened it, three items fell out: a bookmark apparently handmade of crocheted black thread, a newspaper clipping, and a poem written in pencil on a folded piece of paper.

The newspaper clipping is titled "Business Self-Reliance for Women." It reads, in part, as follows:

If a woman has come into possession, by saving or otherwise, of a sum large enough to be invested, there comes a perplexing question, "How can I safely invest this sum?" This question she should decide for herself, and not throw the responsibility on some one in her family whom she regards as a capable adviser.

On the back of the clipping, amid the ads for Scott's Emulsion ("Pure Norwegian Cod Liver Oil Combined with Hypophosphates," which the ad assures the reader is "as palatable as milk") and Burpee's Farm Annual, is an arresting one:


Mrs. M. S. Ramsey of Cedar Gap, Mo., writes: Three years since I procured TOKOLOGY, a complete Ladies' Guide in health and disease. I followed its teachings in two instances with happiest results. I cannot say enough in its praise. I ask every woman: Have you read Tokology?--if not, then get it at once--its value cannot be estimated in money. Mrs. K. writes, "Send me an outfit for Tokology. My aunt in Dakota says, 'If you must sell books, sell Tokology, as it is, next to the Bible, the best book I have ever read.'" Sample pages free. Agents Wanted. Prepaid $2.75. Alice B. Stockham & Co., 161 La Salle St., Chicago.


Despite the somewhat alarming opening question, Tokology is a practical book on midwifery and gynecology by Chicago ob/gyn and health reformer Alice Bunker Stockham.

The third item, handwritten on a folded sheet of faded, lined paper, is this:

My Share--

My share! Today men call it grief and death--
I see the joy & life to-morrow.
I thank our Father with my every breath
For the sweet legacy of sorrow:
And thro' my tears I call to each joint heir
With Christ--to ask Him for thy share--

To do God's will that's all
That need concern us--
Not to carp--and ask
The meaning of it--but to ply our task
Whatever may befall--
Accepting good, or ill, as He may send
And wait the end--


The two items tell a story. A little searching revealed that this is a poem by H. H., or Helen Hunt Jackson, best known these days for Ramona and A Century of Dishonor, but much esteemed as a poet in her own day. Published in 1869, the whole poem is at the Making of America site here.

Jackson's poem isn't "My Share," however, but "My Legacy," a much longer poem in which the speaker learns that she is an heir and learns gradually that her legacy is spiritual. The first stanza of the handwritten poem is the last stanza of Jackson's poem; the rest must have been written by the book's owner or may have appeared in a revised version of Jackson's text. [Edited to add: See the comments for a solution to the mystery of the second stanza.]

So a story emerges from the materials in this book--a story of a legacy left to the owner, perhaps, who struggles with the conflict between material and spiritual, wanting to do the best she can in this world ("Conservative business men in the East regard six per cent as the highest [interest] rate compatible with safety," advises the clipping) while not losing sight of the next.

Grocery store reflection

I don't mind being called "hon" when the alternative is "ma'am."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A good day's commute is seeing . . .

. . . two hawks, each of which has perched on the top of a treeless hill, watching the road.

. . . a coyote at dusk, loping across a stubble field.

. . . a flock of large white geese with black bills (not Canada geese) in the same marshy field where I've seen them for a few weeks. They look a little more like swans, but I don't think that swans would be out there.

. . . a fairly confused young doe zigzagging across the road at night. Fortunately, the pickup truck ahead of me and I see her and slow down until she disappears into the brush.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

How do we make them care?

No, not the students. Despite all the griping about students over at The Chronicle, I think the students already care.

How do you make the Department of We're Here to Help You Tech Support care whether you can do something as simple as play an audio file in class?

We're Here to Help You Tech Support (not its name) is one of the many, many heavily staffed computer support service units where I teach, and its sole purpose is to help faculty with technology in the classroom--playing DVD's, etc. That's it. This unit doesn't even have to deal with Blackboard/WebCT; that's another department.

I team-teach a course in which the other instructor yesterday wanted to play a song to illustrate a point in class. He had done this last semester in the course, and WHHYTS had given him a cord and instructions. All had gone well, so this semester he went back to the same place and asked for the cord. No, we don't have a cord like that, he was told. In fact, you couldn't have gotten that cord from us because we don't support your type of computer.

He found a cord from someone else and hooked it into the panel; no sound came out. I tried to help and couldn't get it to work, either. He called WHHYTS from the classroom, which is next door to WHHYTS, and--sorry, no, they couldn't help with that, either.

We didn't hear the song. The instructor was good-natured about it, as were the students, but the old retro boom box/overhead projector combination is starting to look better all the time for that classroom.