Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thoughts from the archive

  • Walking into an archive (and a town) I've never been to before doesn't feel strange, somehow, for as soon as I caught sight of Author's familiar handwriting, I felt right at home.
  • It's completely irrational, but let's say Author has a side subject that ze is interested in writing about, like geometry or cutting out paper dolls. Every time Author starts talking about geometry or paper dolls (which other researchers have already discussed), I want hir to talk instead about what I'm interested in having hir talk about. See? Irrational.
  • Those who (ahem!) have recently purchased a camera to take photos of materials like the cool kids do should be warned that they should test the camera before going to the archive. Camera manufacturers like to put in enough loud shutter clicks, beeps, and little musical flourishes when the camera turns on and off to embarrass the most intrepid researcher, especially when said researcher can't figure out how to turn them off without diligent Google searches for guidance. If you were in an archive recently and some fool had a noisy camera, that was me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Writing houses again

Our family used to have a dog that did this: If she didn't want to acknowledge the presence of something she was afraid of, like a cat or something she'd chewed up and knew she'd get in trouble for, she wouldn't look directly at whatever it was but would turn away and look at it out of the corner of her eye.

I am that dog, looking slantendicular when I think about (1) the upcoming semester, which is coming up at the speed of light; (2) an upcoming research trip that I would normally look forward to but am not prepared for; (3) serious academic controversies as reported by diligent bloggers; and (4) a ton of writing that is not going well at all. You would think it impossible to avoid looking at everything on your desk directly, including the computer monitor, but you would be wrong, although I can safely report that a day spent trying and failing to write is much more exhausting than actually getting the thing written.

Fortunately, The New Yorker's article "The Rise of the Tiny House" let me escape into my writing house fantasy again for a little while. I'm pretty sure that will help. That and getting the writing done.

(I will write a real post soon.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Home is where the dishwasher is

Historiann has an interesting post up about Michelle Nijhuis's "Not one more winter in the tipi, honey." It's about the gendered division of labor that creeps in when idealistic back-to-the-land-for-a-simpler-life types experience parenthood. The glamor jobs like siding the yurt win a lot of praise whereas the realities of invisible (and repetitive) domestic work like washing diapers don't, and the division of labor that usually attends these tasks often means that women bail out first on the Arcadian dream.

I think it's partly the invisibility of these tasks, as Historiann says, and partly their lack of glamor, but also the sheer amount of mental as well as physical energy that they take. I've never done anything remotely yurt-like in terms of pure back-to-the-landness, but being in the Land of No Internets in the summertime has given me a little appreciation for that life.

I used to get impatient when whoever was in charge of cooking would ask what we'd like for dinner hours before dinner time, but I have more sympathy for that now, though I try not to ask. Once you're the person in charge of cooking, baking, and the rest, you realize that if you don't think about it in advance--first at the grocery store, since it's a long trek back there if you forget something, and then counting back from dinner time to the preparation time you're going to need--dinner and breakfast and lunch aren't going to happen.

Now, to be fair, other family members always offer to take over some of this work, especially washing the mountains of dishes, and certainly at home we have an equitable division of labor: one person cooks and the other cleans up, and so on. I've chosen to take on the more traditional role at the LoNI mostly to give everyone else more free time and because I don't have to do this permanently. I've also done this as a kind of experiment in 19th-century living and as an exercise in shifting focus from one form of work to another.

A lot of commenters over at Historiann's mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, and I'm reminded of something the character Laura thinks about in The First Four Years. In this book, she's pregnant and feeling miserable, but she realizes that "the work must go on, and she was the one who must do it."

To get back to the "not one more winter in the tipi" idea: You can put a solar panel on a yurt or not, depending on how you feel that day, but for all the domestic tasks, the work has to go on whether you feel like it or not. That makes a difference.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Handwriting: a tipping point

Apparently Indiana has abolished the teaching of handwriting (cursive, I think, though the articles don't say) in favor of more typing.
There are class considerations here, too: little Sophie and Ethan* in the suburbs will just add another class to their over-scheduled lives between private music lessons and computer camp while those in regular public school will not. As long as students can still handwrite essays on exams, I don't care if they write in cursive or not, but maybe we're at a tipping point in terms of teaching the physical act of writing with a pen.

But I've discovered something disturbing: I don't much like to write by hand any more, and my handwriting is getting worse from disuse. This is almost as disturbing as discovering that I pay better attention to the books I read on the iPad, even though it's not as easy to mark them up as it is with a pencil. This feels like another kind of tipping point, and I'm not sure I like it.

Has that happened to you?

*Names chosen from the most popular names for 2011--no offense meant to any actual Sophies or Ethans.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Grading: top down or bottom up?

At various points in my teaching career, I've heard of classes in which students were told something like this the first day: "Everyone has an A in this class unless you don't do the work" or "An A in this class is yours to lose" or "If you complete these 5 assignments under our contract, you will get an A." The idea is that this would dispel the students' anxiety about the class and make them work harder for the sheer joy of learning.

I could see the traces of this kind of grading when students would get to my class, look at an essay exam or a paper that I'd handed back, and say, "Why didn't this get an A? Where did I lose the points?"

My practice, as I would always explain to the students when the first exam was handed back, has always been the opposite: a paper starts from zero points/grades and rises up the grading scale based on its quality. A B paper isn't an A paper gone bad in some point-driven way but a paper that began as a 0 and worked its way up to a B ( or"good," as students often forget) level. Better papers worked their way up to an A. Some papers worked their way up to a C.

It seemed to me that the "A is yours to lose" theory of grading would create more anxiety than it would solve, since the only way you could go in such a system was down. Every evaluation opportunity becomes a chance only to fail or to maintain the status quo rather than improve. The best you can do is break even and not lose, but you never really win.

I was thinking of this recently because of something a student wrote about this summer. Her assumption was that all teachers graded on the "points down from an A" model, and her suggestion was that teachers instead start from the bottom and grade upwards since that is more motivating and since that is what students are used to in every game they ever play on their iPhones. I hadn't thought of grading and motivation in terms of games, but it's a great metaphor.

What's your practice?

Monday, July 04, 2011

No phones, no lights, no motor cars

I'm back, in a manner of speaking, although my body clock is still set to several time zones away. It couldn't be called a restful trip, what with flying in and then driving 4 separate trips of 500 miles each due to family emergencies, and when I woke up this morning, I'd been in so many different places that I didn't know where I was for a minute.

But there were a few days in the land of no internets, and that helped a lot. I've written before about the land of no internets, which feels sort of like a private family theme park where the 19th century comes alive (no phones! no internet! no washers! no dishwashers!). Life slows down and spreads out before you when you can't check messages and the phone is off. Instead of looking downward at the phone, a gesture that's become more and more ubiquitous, you lift your head. You look out across the water or across the room at your family members.

Some days I watched the rain pour down and decided that it was a good time to make some cookies or maybe a blueberry cobbler. Other days, I was out on the water and just breathing in the early morning smell of the air. At night, it's so dark I can see constellations that I don't see at other times, and if I ventured a few feet from the house, I wouldn't see it unless the moon is out.

When I left the land of no internets, I discovered that I'd been pelted with phone and email messages from colleagues who didn't take a hint from my previous "I am away from my desk" responses and seemed to want replies! right! now! to deal with issues that were important to them.

But I don't have to care about those messages when I'm in the land of no internets.