Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Random bullets of (post) conference

  • The conference was good: lots of good panels, lots of necessary meetings, and pleasant encounters with colleagues from other institutions.
  • Some of my students were presenting there for the first time, and they did an excellent job. If you think about it, we're not responsible for how they perform (except indirectly), but you know what? I felt proud anyway.
  • At the airport, I was introduced to the latest dance craze: the change-the-plane shuffle. Because of mechanical problems, we had to leave the plane we were on and travel to a whole other concourse to get on another plane. Trekking over to another concourse was a thoughtful idea; they probably thought we'd like the exercise after sitting on the plane that wasn't going to take off for so long.
  • To judge from today's e-mail, everyone at the conference spent all day yesterday busily following up on things, generating tasks, and so on. Don't they know the Rewards Rule for Conferences? When you get back, you get to spend the whole day doing something that you actually enjoy.

    I don't always observe the Rewards Rule, but since I have come down with a nasty cold, I did yesterday, which was devoted to . . .

    a combined Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford film festival, screened here at home in glorious black and white.

  • Friday, May 25, 2007

    Everything old is new again

    Brief conference update:

    I've noticed that a lot of my students don't wear watches (they use iPods or cellphones to check the time) and have started paying attention to this when in sessions as well. Some of the people here (mostly men) don't wear watches, either, but I've seen them pull their cellphones out of their pockets and check them quickly, which means, I suppose, that they're checking the time and not their messages.

    Yes! We are back to the age of the pocket watch, when men did this all the time, and I think it is charming.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2007

    The broccoli of travel

    Conferences are the broccoli of travel. Want proof?

  • Although I will dutifully eat broccoli without much enthusiasm for it, some madness causes me to buy it because I always think I will like it better than I do. Ditto for responding to a CFP.
  • Everyone I know and respect seems to be enthusiastic about eating broccoli, and I thus believe that I should share this feeling. Ditto conferences.
  • When it comes right down to looking at the broccoli on the plate, though, I secretly wish that I had a nice, ripe tomato instead. I eat it because there's no way of getting around it. (Professional development and conferences, anyone?)
  • Once I've eaten the broccoli, I feel as though I have Done a Good Thing for my health and all that. I don't enjoy eating the broccoli, but I enjoy knowing that I have eaten it. In conference world, this translates into getting back and knowing that you don't have to do it again for a while.

    At least it's not the brussels sprouts of faculty meetings that I'm facing.
  • Quick update

    I'm working on a paper and will shortly be on my way to a conference; I'll post in a few days.

    Thursday, May 17, 2007

    It's a blog world, after all

    This is what comes of reading blogs right before falling asleep:

    I dreamt that I was traveling all over blogland. I helped Profgrrrl pick out a house to buy and helped Dr. Crazy with her cleaning project. I stopped by jo(e)'s to admire her lake and listened to music I hadn't heard before with Professor Zero and Chaser. I saw Horace's and Ianqui's pictures from their travels abroad. There were other travels, too, but these are the ones I recall.

    Very strange.

    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    OT: Charities in the news

    From the Los Angeles Times:

    In his will, Di Stefano allotted $33 million to Greenpeace International. The year before he died, Greenpeace International dissolved and was absorbed by the related Greenpeace Fund.

    The Salvation Army went to court, arguing that the specific organization named by Di Stefano no longer existed and therefore was not eligible for the gift. Instead, the Salvation Army said, that portion should be divided among itself and the other six charities.

    Didn't the Salvation Army just inherit a gadzillion dollars from the widow of Ray "More Money than God" Kroc of McDonald's? Does this strike anyone else as being, well, really greedy on the part of the Salvation Army?

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    Does this mean I can come out of the (grammar) closet?

    From WaPo:
    The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."

    I don't teach diagramming sentences in a formal way, as the instructors in the article do. I do, however, assume that students can follow the simplified versions (S-V-DO,S-LV-SC) once I've explained them, and yes, cruel taskmistress that I am, I do make them learn the difference between a clause and a phrase. (Mistress Undine cracks her whip and points to the board, and the students dutifully chant, "That's a direct object and not a subject complement, Mistress Undine.")

    For the record, I did learn to diagram sentences at one point. I learned this concept late, and it was a revelation to me, as was the idea of the thesis statement, the topic sentence, and all the other supposedly repressive accouterments of traditional writing instruction. I had somehow gotten away without learning them for an embarrassingly long time (due to being a reader and hence a decent writer, I suppose), but when I did learn them, guess what happened?

    a. My wounded sense of self went to sit in a corner because it was crushed by the cruelties of form, and I never wrote another creative word.
    b. I began to march in lockstep with the other prisoners of the five-paragraph essay (which I had NEVER heard of until I began to teach first-year composition, at which point I learned that it was an instrument of the devil).
    c. I loved the idea that there was a system, form, and structure to language that would not only explain it but would make me a better writer and a better reader, because I had tools for analysis. [If you picked this one, you picked right.]

    If there are ways that we can help students to improve their writing, and if sometimes the lightbulb goes on because we've given them a concept and (gasp) even made them work on a sample that isn't their own writing once in a while, shouldn't we do it? Isn't that more productive than refusing to explain the concept of, say, an appositive because we want them to divine it from their inner consciousness even if it takes five drafts to do so?

    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    Brief interlude in reading

    Sometimes, when I am reading a novel in which every page introduces a new set of characters, all bristling with nicknames and dialect but with little else to distinguish them, and I have to start writing down a list to remember them . . .

    I long for a Henry James novel: four characters and 800 pages of nothing but artistic descriptions and endless, leisurely dissections of their innermost thoughts.

    Four is a good number. I can keep track of four.

    I'm just saying.

    Tuesday, May 08, 2007

    Goodbye, semester; hello, summer session

  • I turned in grades on Friday. My summer school class started today.
  • Since it's an online class that I've taught before, I've been updating and rewriting and generally fine-tuning the materials. This was my "weekend off."
  • However, I console myself by thinking that movie stars of old like Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck also had to turn around after finishing a movie and report right away for the next one. That's it: I'm a movie star.
  • Is anyone else demented enough to enjoy (very briefly) the period of setting up the gradebook in Excel, when everything's all shiny and the reality of grading hasn't set in yet?
  • You notice I didn't say anything about enjoying Blackboard/WebCT. I estimate that I spent a good hour of the time just waiting for it to upload and load things, to say nothing of the times that it just plain melted down and declined to do anything at all.
  • Among my grievances is the tiny box--about the size of an address label--that Blackboard/WebCT allows for those who want to write something in HTML and thus control the appearance of the page. Add that to the copious amounts of garbage code that Word inserts into everything, and inserting code into the page becomes an exercise in patience, like those artists who write names in calligraphy on a grain of rice.
  • I really should stop complaining about Blackboard/WebCT, but the school uses it and isn't inclined to change.
  • Friday, May 04, 2007

    Reality Check

    Stern PSA voiceover asks "Has this ever happened to you while you were grading? Abusers of the addictive drug of grading may experience flights from reality, flashbacks, and an inability to escape from their grading-riddled world."

  • You look at a word like "receive" or "separate" that's correctly spelled and all of a sudden . . . it looks wrong because that's not the way you've seen it spelled the last twenty times you've read it.
  • You could swear that you taught your students that story and essay titles were punctuated with quotation marks . . . and yet . . . the evidence of their papers tells you that your mouth was moving but no sounds actually escaped that day.
  • You know that Faithful Student can talk about literature and speak in sentences, because you've heard her do it in class, but the evidence of the paper before you tells you that you were hallucinating all along.

    Grading. What a long, strange trip it's been.
  • Thursday, May 03, 2007

    Random Bullets of Grading

  • Why is it that no matter how much and how carefully I proofread an exam, I often misnumber the questions in one segment?
  • Why, after I've explained the directions (which are printed at the top of each section of the exam with some words in bold) would a student who ought to be able to answer the identification questions with ease neglect to answer the number of them that she was supposed to answer?
  • Why do some students come to an exam that they know will contain essay questions without bringing paper with them? (I don't use blue books, but they know that they need to bring paper.)
  • Why do other students write their essays on paper that to all appearances they've been carrying around in their back pockets since the beginning of the semester, if indeed they're not using heirloom paper carried around by their parents when they were in college? The wrinkles in this stuff makes it about as droopy as an old linen handkerchief.
  • Why do I put the paper of the student whose writing has tortured and wordy syntax at the bottom of the pile? It's not as though the writing is going to get better once I've gone through the rest of them.
  • How does this student manage to write about twice as much as his classmates, which means that I have to work my way through twice as much bad writing?
  • Wednesday, May 02, 2007

    Cliche watch: "digital native"

    In a professional meeting recently, I heard someone lament that she was not a "digital native" and referred to herself as an "immigrant" in digital culture.

    Maybe this has some usefulness as a metaphor in education circles. Maybe it has achieved some status because of the current fashion in literary studies for metaphors of cosmopolitanism, immigration, transnationalism, migrations, etc.

    Mostly, though, as used in conversation, the "digital native" idea creates a false distinction. It assumes that there is a fundamental inability to understand a technology if you haven't grown up with it, which is an assumption or belief and not a fact. It also assumes that various technologies cannot become naturalized or do not seem natural to those who haven't grown up with them.

    The concept of "digital native" seems to come from the touching belief of each generation that its technologies are so transformative, so life-changing, that no one over the age of seven can grasp their full impact except as an outsider. My students might like to say (in their favorite cliche) that this has been true since the dawn of time, but let's just take the twentieth century:

  • 1920s: "These kids today and their automobiles! They don't have to harness up Bessie to the wagon to go into town anymore. They're so mobile! How will we ever understand the ways they think? We are not automobile natives and can never, ever catch up. "
  • 1950s: "Why, this new generation can actually SEE Jack Benny on television instead of just hearing him on the radio! This will totally transform the way we teach. Teachers will become obsolete, since everyone will just listen to a master teacher on television. We are not television natives and can never understand the ways in which their brains are wired." (If you don't think this is accurate, check out an old Life or Time magazine from the era.)
  • 2000s: "These kids today are digital natives, and we, poor sods, are always going to be digital immigrants. They think in completely new ways, and we can never, ever catch up!"

    I don't know why this metaphor annoys me so. To be honest, it's no more annoying than the Boomer/Gen X/Gen Y cliches that lazy magazine writers bring out when they have a big chunk o' space to fill with feel-good or feel-bad anecdotes. ("Boomer Files" in Newsweek, anyone?) When I hear people use "digital native," though, a lot of times they're flapping their hands about how they'll just never get the whole concept of these internet tubes in the ways that the young folks do, which seems to me both (1) lazy and (2) a fundamental evasion of the problem, which is their unwillingness to engage with digital culture.

    Well, guess what? This divide isn't generational. I know 70-year-olds who can reinstall hard drives, reset a computer's BIOS (or whatever it is), and use Photoshop in ways that would put the rest of us to shame and supposed "digital natives" who can't send an attachment.

    So do I think that the digital revolution (to be pretentious about it) has changed the ways in which people, and especially our students, think, read, and access information? Of course it has. But the "digital native" idea? Ultimately, that's a stereotype that, like most of them, tells less about the people being categorized than about those who seek to categorize them.

    [Update 12/5/07: There's a good (and more serious) essay about this, including additional links, at Confessions of an Aca/Fan.]
    [Edited to add: There's also just the slightest possibility that corporations and advertisers have found a way to make a buck by preying on our insecurities and anxieties about teaching "digital natives," just as they've managed to do when selling us mouthwash and deodorant. Nah, that couldn't happen.]
  • Tuesday, May 01, 2007

    Dr. Popularity

    If you're teaching a course required for graduation, and you're teaching it online (as I am this summer), chances are that you've never felt so popular in your life.

    The class has been filled for a few weeks now. Since it's a writing class, I can't add anyone unless I'm willing to look like St. Sebastian. (Overloading a writing class not only makes bad sense pedagogically but also encourages administrative types to wonder whether EVERYONE shouldn't have an overload--not a popular idea.) I have to tell everyone who contacts me to (1) call the department and ask to be put on the waiting list, if there is one and (2) check the online registration to pick up a space if someone drops.

    Although I have to give this same advice to everyone, I'm getting a variety of appeals:

  • "Hi. I have a full slate of courses in the fall and can't take this class then. I need to graduate in the fall, so can you let me in?" I forbear from suggesting that this person might have thought about taking the course before being a graduating senior.
  • "I need this course because I have to stay home this summer and take care of an ailing family member." Sorry--I wish I could, but I can't. It'll be offered again this fall, though.
  • "Hey there. Can you let me into this course? [Complex registration story follows.] I know it means more work for you, but it would be better for me." Yes, I'm sure it would. No, I can't let you in.

    I've heard back from at least one who was able to pick up the course when a spot opened up. I wish I could be happier about this, but sometimes that just means that someone's been dropped because of fees/a registration hold/tuition nonpayment, which means I'll get another message in a week or so:
  • "Hi. I was enrolled in your class, but I got disenrolled because of [insert bureaucratic foulup here]. Can you let me back in?"

    And the answer again will have to be "sorry--no."