Saturday, January 30, 2010

Random bullets of this week

Things are bound to slow down now that the semester's begin, right? Right? Until then, some random bullets.
  • What I'm finding about the flying dinosaurs studies class is that all the reading I've done over the past several years (and much of my recreational reading has been in flying dinosaur studies) is now emerging, unbidden, in various relevant ways as I lecture, lead discussions, and answer questions in that class. All that reading wasn't a waste of time and a creative means of work avoidance after all!
  • This semester, I built in a lot of in-class short writing, out-of-class response papers, etc., and while it's good for the students, it's killing my own writing time even though most of the assignments are "comments only" and not graded.
  • And about that kind of writing. I've heard for years about the tips for managing these things: assign a journal to students but don't read it, assign response papers but only look at a random 5 of those handed in per class, etc. The logic is that it's good for them to write even if they aren't getting immediate feedback, that more writing is always better, and that the students will adjust to it as long as you explain the system ahead of time. Well, maybe that's true in comp classes, although even in those, the students wanted me to read what they'd written. They would ask me questions in their journal entries so that I would respond. My belief is that if it's important enough for me to require that they write about it, it's important enough for me to read it--otherwise, why would they bother taking it seriously as an assignment and why would I have assigned it? It'd be a lot like writing those pointless committee reports that we all complain about, the ones where no one is going to pay attention to the recommendations anyway. I don't want to inflict pointless writing on students, even though I can't avoid it for myself.
  • Although I have a lot of students this semester, far more than usual, just about all the students in the classes seem to be pretty engaged. I say "most" because in one class, a couple of them (who talk loudly about what "A" students they are) like to chat incessantly with each other throughout the class. Funny thing about that: if you asked me to draw a Venn diagram of all the A students I've had and all the students who have chattered incessantly and disruptively in class, the two circles would never intersect at any point. Go figure.
I'll be back to posting for real soon.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Be careful what you wish for--but it's all good, really

Not so long ago in a cold galaxy not so far away, a professor dreamed that she would create a new course. The new course would be based on materials that she was familiar with but had never taught, in a slightly different field from the one she'd been teaching in. It's a field she's excited about and really wanted to teach a course in. Let's call it "flying dinosaur studies." Now, the professor had taken courses in flying dinosaur studies during the last ice age and has kept up with it since, pretty much.

She's aware that flying dinosaur studies is not her area of primary expertise. Every word that comes out of her mouth about a flying dinosaur is one that she's had to read about anew. The materials for the course have, of course, evolved (heh) since the last ice age when she took her courses in the subject, so she's had to investigate and reinvent those, too. She can't talk off the top of her head about the structure of the pterosaur* wing, as she can--and does--about just about everything that she regularly teaches.

But she loves flying dinosaur studies. She wakes up thinking about it every morning, even though she has other courses that she likes, too. She thinks about ways to present the subject and other materials that she can bring in. It helps that the class is full and that the students seem as excited as she is.

It's exhausting and it's exhilarating.

And that's why I've been ignoring this poor blog.

*Edited to add: Not actually a flying dinosaur, except in humanities blogland. See the comments for an explanation.

Monday, January 18, 2010


From Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment:

King's eloquence endures, drawn as it was from ancient sources--the Bible, the spirituals, the hymns and folk songs. He was young at his death, younger than either Kennedy; but he had traveled farther. He did fewer things, but those things last. A mule team drew his coffin in a rough cart; not the sleek military horses and the artillery caisson. He has no eternal flame--and no wonder. He is not dead.

First thought this morning

  • Oh, wait--you mean I have to teach this week, too? And the next? And the next?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Two items in the news

  • I've been reading and reading and reading about the job crisis but don't have any answers or indeed much to add beyond what's at the links. The only answers involve (1) more funding, (2) more emphasis on education, and (3) more jobs in this country, including manufacturing jobs and a system of health care that doesn't depend a person's employment. I'm going to continue to do what I can (as faculty) to create better conditions about this but am not going to write about it.
  • There are a lot of charities that are giving aid in Haiti, including Doctors Without Borders, and all can help.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Will I lose all research credibility forever if I admit that being back in class is energizing? That I'm enjoying the students so far? That so far it's fun?

I know--ask me again in March how energizing it is. And part of that energy is getting a time-sucking monkey off my back, the monkey being a long piece of writing that drained a lot more time and energy than it was worth over the past few months. Compared to that, prepping to teach seems like floating around in the Wizard of Oz's balloon.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Random Bullets of Syllabus Writing

  • Bardiac has a post on the various miseries of writing a syllabus, among them making rules that you won't be able to keep.
  • There's a fine line between saying too much and saying too little. If you're vague, your syllabus may not stand up if there's a challenge.
  • If, on the other hand, you spell out behaviors that you won't tolerate (texting in class), there's a chance that the students will be (1) insulted or (2) think, "wow, I didn't know you could do that in this class." True story: in religious education classes when I was a kid, if the public school kids (of which I was one) were late, the nuns used to say, in effect, "If you'd quit hanging out on the corner, drinking beer and smoking and trying to pick up boys, you wouldn't be late." We were 12 years old. Needless to say, we weren't hanging out on the corner, etc., but the implication steamed me so much that I could barely listen to what they were saying. Moral: If you treat people with excessive suspicion, they'll either enthusiastically try to live up to your worst fears about them or waste a lot of mental energy being resentful instead of listening to you.
  • At some point, if you're teaching a new course, you'll think, "I don't know enough to teach this course." This isn't true. As a wise elder once told me, "You'll always know more than they will, even if it's not as much as you'd like." While this isn't true in all cases, it's mostly true.
  • Those of you who have mandates not to print your syllabus but to post it to Blackboard or something may find this funny (I did):
  • [Edited to add] On the other hand, I'll be including some version of "don't text" in my syllabus, so maybe I have a suspicious nature.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The toys of teaching

They don't have to be shiny, these toys. I'm talking about the little enjoyable preparatory steps that you mess around with when you're planning classes. Since there's no weight to them yet (grading, prepping class), they really are kind of fun.
  • Syllabus. I know--we have to do this, but if it's not also enjoyable, why am I taking so much time with it? What kinds of assignments? How many will there be? When will papers be coming in so I'm not snowed under by my own lack of planning?
  • Thinking about grading. Since I don't actually have to grade anything right now, I find myself thinking about things like essay commenting programs (like eMarking assistant, which Peter mentioned in the comments to the previous post, or Markin, or just the tried-and-true autotext), contemplating rubrics, and setting up Excel gradebooks for the semester.
  • New books. I ordered some different editions for this spring's classes, and while I'll probably regret it down the line, there's something energizing about marking up a new text for teaching.
  • New pens in different colors. New ink for fountain pens. New notebooks.
  • Folders that will soon be a sorry, dog-eared mess of ill-assorted papers but that right now sport neat labels that promise all kinds of order and efficiency.
  • Checking the rosters and seeing if any students have taken classes with me before.
Of course, this may say something about the academic world that these would be considered "fun," but given how busy it'll be once the semester starts, I'm going to take what fun I can get. Are there any toys like this that get you interested in the semester?