Saturday, December 31, 2011

Taking stock at year's end

All around the blogosphere, there are fabulous and funny roundups at this year's end. If I take stock the way I do after a class is over, what do I want to see more of or less of in 2012?
1. More acceptance and fewer regrets. By nature I can't make decisions, and when I do, I second-guess myself for literally decades. What if I'd done X or said no to Y? What if I hadn't resigned from Z task? Logic doesn't enter into it, and reflecting on the decisions just leads to pits of regret regardless of the reality that my decision may have been the right one. This year, I said no to more invitations and felt all right about it. That's progress.

2. More recognition of the fact that writing may be easy, but thinking is hard. I'm paraphrasing something profacero once said about writing being easy, because while certain kinds of writing are a real pleasure, others are tough. I'm thinking of some pieces I wrote that were based on archival materials, and the writing of them was just a joy--like writing a narrative--whereas what I've been wrestling with this year are ideas that reconceive some important things in my research area, and in that wrestling match, the ideas got the better of me more than once. I haven't written as much this year, but I've thought my way through some things that should prove fruitful (they'd better!) in 2012.

3. More attention to things I can do something about, and less attention to things I can't. Example of where attention matters: I lost about ten pounds just by paying attention to whether I was really hungry when I ate something. Example of where it doesn't: Watching the contest of political candidates vying for attention by appealing to the lowest common denominator of stupidity in the American public. Paying attention to what people call themselves or profess to be when their actions are what count.

What else? High hopes for more exercise, more writing, more energy, more good spirits-- and wishing the same to everyone else on New Year's Eve!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The holiday was lovely. Family, here and on the phone from distant places. People playing the piano.

Looking out the window at that blue light in the atmosphere that comes just after dusk, when the only thing you can see clearly is the white snow and the shape of the trees.

And cookies. I can usually take them or leave them alone, but there's a kind of Christmas sugar cookies with confectioner's sugar glaze that are basically like crack to me. Fortunately, I ate up the rest and thought about Oscar Wilde's "the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it." Oh, Oscar. If you only knew.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Soothing things

What we want is . . . soothing things. Cookies. Maybe some more cookies. Maybe some tea, quiet music, and sitting by the fire.

Maybe to wander around the books on our shelves, take one down that has nothing to do with projects at hand, and read just for the fun of it.

From Mark Twain (culled from various essays and speeches):
  • "Always obey your parents, when they are present."
  • "Yes, one of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it. There is only one thing certain about it, you are certain there is going to be plenty of weather--a perfectly grand review; but you can never tell which end of the procession is going to move first. . . . The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing. When it strikes a thing, it doesn't leave enough of that thing behind for you to tell whether--well, you'd think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there."
  • "That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse."
  • "If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick."
  • [On the last words of great men.] "Now there was Daniel Webster. Nobody could tell him anything. He was not afraid. He could do something neat when the time came. And how did it turn out? Why, his will had to be fixed over; and then all his relations came, and first one thing and then another interfered, till at last he only had a chance to say 'I still live,' and up he went. Of course, he didn't still live, because he died--and so he might as well have kept his last words to himself as to have gone and made such a failure of it as that."
  • "I have been a correct speller, always; but it is a low accomplishment and not a thing to be vain of. Why should one take pride in spelling a word rightly when he knows he is spelling it wrongly? . . . .Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't."
  • "The fact is, as the poet has said, we are all fools. The difference is simply in the degree. The mercury in some of the fool-thermometers stands at ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, and so on; in some it gets up to seventy-five; in some it soars to ninety-nine. I never examine mine, --take no interest in it."

Do you have more suggestions for soothing things at this time of the year?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Random bullets of preparing for the holidays

  • The nice thing about this time of year is that you can give in to your impulses to do the most soothing activity on earth: baking.
  • I know that administrators and support staff are still in the office, but grades are in (hooray!) and I am not. Do you really think I'm going to work on task force/committee/other service things this week? No? Then why do you keep sending me things? I'm guessing it's the "tennis ball school of time management": you lob it to my desk so it's off your desk.
  • After all these years, I actually associate listening to holiday music with working on papers for MLA. How sick is that?
  • The "buy local" thing is going pretty well, but I would like to give retailers once piece of advice: if you are any store that does not cater to children, playing Alvin and the Chipmunks as holiday music is a surefire way to send adults scurrying for the exits whether they've bought their virtuous local goods or not.
  • About buying local: yes, some things cost more than on Amazon. I just bought fewer things this year. It's not about things.
  • Technology brings us many gifts this time of year, including this one: If you are going to MLA and are not yet anxious about it, just check out anything on Twitter with an MLA hashtag. I guarantee you will start to fret and hyperventilate--or is that just me and is everyone else excited about it?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Automated learning: MITx and online certificates

Update: Dean Dad has some of the same questions about who is going to pay for all this: Http://
According to an article at The Chronicle, "MIT Will Offer Certificates to Outside Students Who Take Its Online Courses." , MIT is going to start offering certificates to--well, the headline tells you about it.

In one way, this is a positive step toward making learning, especially in technical subjects, available to more people, people who couldn't attend/be accepted into/afford MIT. They'll earn the certificates in this way: "They'll watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests. They'll also connect with others working on the material." As open courses, these could be hugely popular: 94,000 people enrolled in just one course (yes, one course) offered by Stanford last fall. The course will be as rigorous as a regular course, we're told. These are MOOC courses.

As always, the sticking point is assessment: how will the learning in the course be evaluated, and by whom?

Short answer: "It's unclear exactly how the assessment will work."

Longer answer: Technology and teaching assistants will be our saviors.
But how much will outside individuals get to interact with MIT professors? That's unclear.

One way to promote such contact will be software that handles many questions, said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"Through voting and other mechanisms, you can create a funnel of requests so that the requests that come off the funnel at the very top can actually be answered by MIT professors and MIT TA's," he said. "A large number of questions at the lower parts of the funnel can actually be answered by other learners who may be slightly ahead."

MIT faculty members have also developed technology that can automatically grade essays. Other technologies that could come into play here include automatic transcription, online tutors, and crowdsourced grading.

This sounds as though it might work in technical fields, where I'm assuming you have some fixed, highly complex content that has to be mastered. I don't have enough content knowledge about those fields to say. It has an advantage in that we're all used to using online forums, responding, and rating good answers highly. It's satisfying to help someone online, and this model would take advantage of that knowledge.

But automated essay grading? Crowdsourced grading and the pointlessness of writing essays at all have already made their way into the conversation. Possibly MIT is thinking of anonymous grading along the lines of "the grading factory" or of outsourcing grading as business school professors are doing. Certainly some science instructors are enthusiastic about programs like SAGrader.

An essay grading program may not have the emotional kick of having a student come up at the end of the semester to thank you for helping her improve her writing, as happened to me and other bloggers recently, but MIT seems to say that the efficiency tradeoff is worth more than the emotional connection.

And if teaching assistants and adjunct tutors are the solution: does the profession really need to find MORE ways to exploit TA's and adjuncts? I'm guessing that only an Einstein in training is going to make it to the top of the question pyramid that MIT describes and that overworked and underpaid temporary faculty are going to do the bulk of it, without ever getting the satisfaction of having seeing individual students improve, unless they have a better memory for 94,000 names than I do.

I'm not saying this isn't the wave of the future; it might be. I'm not saying this can't work; for technical fields, it might. I don't know enough to say.

But if it's the wave of the future, why is MIT so careful to "distance" this "brand" from its own brand of education?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thinking about next time at semester's end

As I'm getting ready to post grades (now all in--yay!), I look at the Excel spreadsheet and it talks to me.
  • Why, oh, why, didn't student X show up more and, you know, make an effort? S/he should have been an A student.
  • Next time, don't be so tenderhearted in marking their first papers.
  • Really, you made that assignment worth THAT much?
  • Next time, arrange the semester so that you're not giving up writing for grading for the last three weeks of it.
And now it's time to get back to writing, which fell off hugely once I stopped doing the 750words thing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't be evil, Amazon, and abandon your scorched-earth policy

You've probably seen this already, but if you haven't, go read Richard Russo's "Amazon's Jungle Logic" at the NYTimes:

In a new low in shopping promotions, Amazon is giving shoppers a discount if they go into a brick-and-mortar store, compare prices on an item using some price-compare app, and then buy the thing on Amazon.

On a world-affairs scale, that may not amount to much evil, but on an everyday-consumer-life scale, that's evil. It's even ratcheting up a notch the ethically dubious practice endorsed by staid old and usually not corrupt Consumer Reports of test-driving a car or checking out consumer electronics at your local dealer and then ordering it online to save money.

Here's a tip: those brick-and-mortar stores don't exist as free showrooms for online businesses, although would like to think they do. If we keep using them that way, pretty soon those free showrooms won't exist, especially in the book world. You won't stumble on books or find a gift by looking around a store filled with books, because there won't be one near you.

I still do buy from, especially when it's some book of lit crit that no indy bookseller would have or when sending a gift that would mean an hour in line at the post office. But I turned the tables on Amazon by printing out the "wish lists" of gift recipients. I plan to head down to the friendly independent bookseller with those lists later this week--and I won't be doing so with any Amazon Judas app in tow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

To comment or not to comment? That is the question.

I'm grading the last set of papers and am doing this on the iPad for entertainment purposes (mine). I'm wondering what the rest of you do about the following: Do you write comments on their final papers?

Anti-comment reasons:
  • A lot of people say that they don't actually write comments on the final papers since the students won't look at anything except the grades. If the students want to know the reasons, they should come in next semester and ask.
  • Students don't have another possibility to improve in the class, so there's really no point.
  • Students won't see the papers. (While this is true of dead-tree papers, it doesn't apply for electronically uploaded ones, which the students will see via the CMS.)

    Pro-comment reasons:
  • Since I always write the comments, I'm not sure if this is the case, but I'd think that writing comments would forestall email complaints and questions, especially from Very Concerned Students.*
  • There's no way, with the numbers of papers I grade, that I would remember the exact rationale for a particular grade months later, and although my grading standards are consistent enough that I could replicate them in an individual case, I don't want to sit there like a deer in the headlights while going over the paper with the student.

    Your thoughts?

    *Very Concerned Students = those who have told you repeatedly that they intend to, nay, WILL, get an A in the course, whether or not their touchingly high levels of self-esteem match their actual skills and make this a realistic possibility. Such students are hypothetical; I don't have any this semester.
  • Wednesday, December 07, 2011

    The Magic 8-Ball approach to student questions

    "When will you give us back our papers?"

    When they are graded.

    "Will you give them back to us at the next class?"

    Cannot predict now.

    "What did you think of my paper in particular?"

    Ask again later.

    "Will we get them back before the final?"

    All signs point to yes.

    "Can I email you multiple times asking you 'what if?' scenarios about my grade and following up with demands for more calculations on your part?"

    My reply is no.

    "Will you be annoyed if I try to engage you in such an email exchange?"

    Most likely.

    "Can I ask you for an exact accounting of my grade after class when you are trying to get out of the room before the next class?"

    Don't count on it.

    "Am I going to pass this class if I don't make it to the final?"

    Better not tell you now.

    Saturday, December 03, 2011

    End of semester syndrome

    I think I have end of semester syndrome. Now, I am not a doctor, although I play one for 16 weeks each semester, but here are the symptoms:

    • A version of what Ms. Mentor calls October--"exploding head month"--in which although you've been working diligently since August, you realize that you have not accomplished nearly enough, and in your mind that becomes "nothing at all," and your head explodes with the knowledge of what you still have to do.
    • Also causing your head to explode: the realization that a whole bunch of deadlines, including MLA presentations, are zooming toward you at the speed of light.
    • A twinge of envy: assuming that all your colleagues have accomplished far more than you have in the past semester--have written more, have taught more exciting classes, and have generally outpaced you in every way.
    • Happiness that classes will soon be over. No more prep! No more grading! No more writing new assignments! No more figuring out how to teach yet one more brand-new story!
    • Sadness that classes will soon be over. You've worked really hard, and you've been with these students for all these weeks, and you're confident that at least some of them have learned something, and it's now all ending. In some way, you know you will miss the familiar routine of going in to teach them, and you will probably miss seeing some of them, too.
    • A sinking feeling upon realizing that you now have to get ready to do the whole thing all over again in the spring. You have to think about courses you've never taught before, and dream up assignments, and carry everyone along on your back with your enthusiasm until their enthusiasm for the class catches fire, assuming that it does.
    • And did I mention getting ready for the holidays?

    Symptoms may also include soundtracks. Here is the soundtrack that accompanies my particular End of Semester Syndrome; yours may vary:
    Am I the only patient with ESS? What are your symptoms?