Friday, April 30, 2010

News from the flying dinosaurs front

I've been talking this semester about my class in "flying dinosaurs studies," which has just ended, so I thought I'd share the results of an end-of-semester survey that I usually do so that I can choose texts for the next time. I did this in my other classes, too, with similar results. I ask them what their reactions were to what we read, what they'd like to read that we didn't read this semester, etc.
  • "I liked what we studied." I can live with this one.
  • "Why didn't we study the stegosaurus? I studied the stegosaurus in high school and wrote a paper on it for my class last year, and we study it in every dinosaur class ever offered, so why wasn't it included in this class?" What part of flying dinosaurs was unclear to you in the course description?
  • "I really wanted to study T.Rex. T. Rex rips things apart, and there's a lot of blood and cool stuff to look at with T. Rex. I've read about a hundred books on T. Rex, like everybody else in the class, so why didn't we study more about T. Rex? Also: zombies." What part of flying . . . oh, never mind.
  • "Why didn't we discuss the color of dinosaur claws in more depth? They are pretty. We talked about the wings a lot, but we only spent a little time talking about the claws." You've got me there.
Seriously, though, if they're given a choice between something they haven't read before and something they have, why do they go for the familiar text?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hoovering through

When I was in junior high, I used to walk to school with a sort-of friend. Every day I'd stop by her house to pick her up, and sometimes I'd stop on the way back, too. Invariably, regardless of the time of day, her mother would be hauling around a gigantic upright vacuum cleaner on the blue shag carpet; the vacuum cleaner, like the house, dated from the early 1960s and looked as if it were all steel and built to survive Armageddon. "She's Hoovering through," my SOF would explain, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to be totally attached to a vacuum cleaner all day.

I think I have been Hoovering through with teaching: chained to it at the hip, getting teaching epiphanies, worrying about students who checked out of class long ago (one of whom has decided to withdraw, thank goodness), and generally concentrating all my work/cleaning time on it day and night. On the plus side, my Excel gradebooks have never looked more cleaned-up and shiny, whereas usually there's an "oh, rats, I have to turn grades in" moment in which everything on paper gets entered into the spreadsheet at the last minute. I can actually tell students how many points they have for X or Y without saying "let me get back to you on that" and making frantic calculations. On the minus side--well, we all know what the minus side is, don't we? Although I did write and deliver a couple of conference presentations recently, that momentum didn't hold. Oh, no. Apparently I'm compelled to Hoover through.

Part of it is just being on campus all the time (and I'm not done for the week yet). The last few weeks of the semester are a favorite time for students whom you haven't seen all semester to materialize at your door and for administrators and faculty to schedule receptions, celebrations, award ceremonies, meetings, and presentations.

But now a few secret messages before I put the vacuum cleaner away for the day and concentrate on work:
  • To the technology gods: if you had to bestow a massive, class-ending technology clusterfail on me, and apparently you did, thank you for leaving it until the end of the semester.
  • To the student who wants to know if I've had a chance to grade the weekly work from February, March, and April that he tried to turn in all in a heap yesterday despite knowing that the deadlines have long passed: no, and you're too late to get credit for those.
  • To the "oh, are you here today?" colleague from an earlier post: thanks, because your comment annoyed me so much that I went on the offensive with this, asking you, "which day are YOU here? I didn't see you last week."
  • To the students who are excited about the options they chose for their final project and said so: I'm glad. It took a little longer for me to come up with those assignments, and it'll take longer to grade them, but your engagement in and excitement about the material makes that extra time worth it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Short takes on deep thoughts

After a ridiculously busy week, I visit the blogosphere and discover that instead of celebrating April with daffodils and bunny pictures, everyone has good posts filled with deep thoughts.
  • Notorious Ph.D. has a pair of posts asking graduate students how faculty members can best help them ("honesty").
  • Historiann points out that mothers are once again being blamed and asks why it's so difficult for Americans to acknowledge the difficult realities of family life.
  • Dr. Crazy contemplates a change (possibly generational) in the makeup of the academic blogosphere.
  • Professor Zero provides the real translation of an exchange with an arrogant and clueless colleague.
  • Ink had a week filled with testing (of the doctor kind) and grading (of the grading kind).
  • tenthmedieval comments on the works of academic rock stars and, you know, rock star rock stars.
  • Clio Bluestocking responds to messages composed of equal parts racism and incivility.
  • New Kid gets exasperated by advice on professional dress that boils down to the perennial (and sexist) "don't dress in a way to distract men ('sexy' clothes) or make women jealous of you ('wear a big engagement ring').
  • AnnieEm describes the reasons behind choosing a set list of questions for interviews.
Here is the only thing I can offer in response: [there used to be a bunny picture here, but it disappeared.]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Machines need rest, too: an animistic theory of the universe

Just to clarify: I don't really believe that there's a mystic connection between machines and human beings, since (sorry, Tracy Kidder) machines don't have souls.

But it sure helps to act as if they do, doesn't it? Do you stand there in front of a class and mutter "come on, come on" when a particularly balky overhead projector or computer is creaking slowly through its deliberate startup routine?

Do you maybe think to yourself, "Right, then--if you want to be that way about it" when about 1 time in every 10 it won't work at all for no apparent reason? If I weren't in front of a class when that happened, I'd go through the startup routine until I figured out the problem by eliminating variables, but for some reason students seem to find this a less-than-gripping entertainment when they're ready to talk about literature, so I don't do that any more.

Do you ever feel a mixture of bracing yourself up for battle and a willingness to accept defeat when you're trying to use media at a conference, since whatever machine has been set up might take a dislike to your USB drive or your computer and refuse to show anything but a blue screen?

Have you ever had a machine that just stopped working, and you put it in the garage or just left it turned off for a few months or a year, and then you plug it in and it works again? I've had that happen too many times to count and have simply concluded that machines need rest, too.

Or, closer to home, all of a sudden Firefox stopped showing up for work this week. I don't know whether it was tired of browser duty or what, but I'd click on it, and I'd see it in the "running processes" list, but it never actually opened. After several days of this, I interpreted the theory to mean "sometimes browsers need rest, too" and uninstalled it. I'll reinstall it in a week or so, after it has had its Florida vacation or whatever it needed to recover from its fatigue.

Has any of this happened to you?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The iPad: techno-envy

If I had a dollar for every review and blogpost I've read about the iPad over the past two weeks, I would have enough to buy--well, not an iPad, but maybe a cover for it.

I know all the drawbacks: why buy this when you have a netbook? It doesn't do anything a laptop can't do. It's a content-consumption device, not a content-creation device. It's expensive (although I have a rebate from something else that I could put toward buying it.) On and on.

I don't care. I at least want to get my hands on one to see if there is a Mystical Connection between woman and machine.

It isn't rational, this feeling. I just am drawn to the idea of it, the way that (stereotype alert) many men are drawn to cars and apparently, as Dr. Isis has taught me, most women care about shoes. (I don't.)

I waited two years for my Kindle envy to go away, and finally it did, but what's the use if iPad envy took its place?

Maybe I need to wait until this wave of techno-envy goes away.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The non-grading "teaching professional"

From the Chronicle comes this heartwarming story of a professor with seven (!) teaching assistants who was still just too oppressed to grade anything. Her solution: outsourcing grading, which allows her to continue talking in front of PowerPoint slides with arrows on them:

Lori Whisenant knows that one way to improve the writing skills of undergraduates is to make them write more. But as each student in her course in business law and ethics at the University of Houston began to crank out—often awkwardly—nearly 5,000 words a semester, it became clear to her that what would really help them was consistent, detailed feedback.

Her seven teaching assistants, some of whom did not have much experience, couldn't deliver. Their workload was staggering: About 1,000 juniors and seniors enroll in the course each year. "Our graders were great," she says, "but they were not experts in providing feedback."

That shortcoming led Ms. Whisenant, director of business law and ethics studies at Houston, to a novel solution last fall. She outsourced assignment grading to a company whose employees are mostly in Asia.

Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc., took over. The goal of the service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task—and even, the company says, to do it better than TA's can. . . .
"People need to get past thinking that grading must be done by the people who are teaching," says Mr. Rajam, who is director of assurance of learning at George Washington University's School of Business. "Sometimes people get so caught up in the mousetrap that they forget about the mouse."
I do appreciate the professor's wish to have her students write more as an aid to learning, and it's true that she couldn't possibly grade all that writing in a large lecture class herself. Still, here are a few questions:

1. If the TA's are not up to the task just yet, how about training them and working with them until they can work with students' writing effectively? If they're teaching assistants, presumably University of Houston has some kind of graduate program in the field in which they're assisting. If they're graduate students, they're supposed to be learning and to be guided by faculty, aren't they? What am I missing here?

2. Doesn't this feed into the worst accusations of critics of academe that TA's are being accepted into programs primarily to teach (cost effectiveness for courses) and not to learn?

3. If additional instructors must be hired to help with the grading, it's good to know that there are absolutely no unemployed or underemployed M.A. and Ph.D. graduates trained in composition theory and experienced in the teaching of writing in Houston who could be hired and that outsourcing is entirely an ethical choice for the "director of business law and ethics studies."

4. I'm going to draw a polite curtain over the mousetrap/mouse analogy (students and their writing are the mouse, a mousetrap kills the mouse--oh, never mind.)

[Update: There are lots more comments on the article now at the original link. They range from "This is cost-effective; what's the problem?"(a few) to "For those prices, you could hire on-campus graders" (#18) to "What is teaching about, if grading isn't part of it?" (quite a few) to "Hire me! I'll grade them for $12 a pop" (a lot) to "You fat, lazy Americans won't take this job anyway, so why are you complaining?" (#43) to "How about we outsource administration?" (#47).]

Monday, April 05, 2010

Getting back on the horse

I try to keep a record of writing productivity, a la Silvia's How to Write a Lot, but that particular spreadsheet isn't one I've opened in a while. "Here I am," it says to me, and I'm off in another room with my fingers in my ears, singing "La la la, I can't hear you. Look! There's another book on flying dinosaurs to prep! Another paper to grade! Another set of response papers to read!" I have never used teaching as a distraction and procrastination device before, but lo and behold, that's what I've done this semester.

This morning, in trying to write and get back a sense of order, I took a look at the spreadsheet. The record has more zeros in it than a hedge fund manager's salary, except that mine doesn't have the mitigating number before those zeros that measures worth in millions or billions. No, I just have zeros where a record of days spent writing could be.

To be fair, a number of those days were on-campus days, usually 3-4 a week; that means 12 hours per on-campus day, counting travel, and an absence of opportunity to write between teaching, dealing with students, and attending committee meetings.

But that's really an excuse. What I've done is like making a big sandcastle instead of building a house: by the time the semester is done, all the writing on those papers, all the prep--everything--will be washed away, and I'll be standing there on the beach with nothing except satisfaction in what I did with teaching to show for the semester.

Now, that kind of satisfaction is valuable to me personally, and presumably the effort I put into teaching helps students, but in a count-happy culture (how many publications? how perfect are your evaluations?), it doesn't really matter to anyone except me. As we're constantly being reminded in a count-happy culture, and, as we remind our students, effort doesn't count. Product does.

So although it's not one of the traditional times to turn over a new leaf--beginning of the semester, January 1--I'm going to get back on this particular horse of writing, and to do that, I have to record the progress I've made. I'm going to stare down those zeros every day until they turn into something else: evidence of work accomplished.

Friday, April 02, 2010

This is not a real post

Grumble . . . reading other people's words . . . writing letters for other people's projects, awards, and evaluations . . . reading student projects . . . evaluating . . . evaluating . . . being on campus and kept from writing many, many days in a row . . . grumble.