Monday, December 31, 2012

Checking in as 2012 checks out

I'm checking in to read everyone's great New Year's posts (too many to link fully; see the sidebar).  Some are looking at the year in media and culture (TR, Madwoman with a Laptop, Culture Industry), while others are doing more of a roundup of their year (What Now, Bardiac, Dr. Crazy--and Z and Dr. Koshary say it with music).

Despite the holidays, it's been quiet here now, and peaceful, in part because of getting away from Facebook and Twitter. As good as Twitter may be for some things (read this! follow this link! participate in this conversation! pay attention!), you could spend your life on it and never catch your breath or regain your focus. Like the rest of the Internet, it commands your attention until you think it's your oxygen.

The whole frenzy will all start up again in a couple days with MLA, and then with classes right after that. But right now, sitting here and looking out at the snow with a glass of red wine and a sleeping cat beside me, the quiet sounds pretty good right now.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Short holiday hiatus

I'm going to try a short internet hiatus except for the writing I need to get done (hello, MLA!).  Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that the new MLA dates are much better in terms of being  stressed out over Christmas? I still need to get things done, but not having get up before the crack of dawn for a 12-hour travel day on the day after Christmas is a big improvement. Thanks, MLA!

Happy holidays, everyone!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Random soothing questions

  • If you live in a part of the world (as I do) where a significant number of older men have white beards, do children think they are seeing Santa Claus in street clothes?
  • True or false: one of the benefits of sending Christmas cookies to relatives who don't bake (or don't bake any more) is that, if they don't like the cookies they don't have to eat them and you'll never know. 
  • Has it struck anyone yet that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, especially in Sherlock, are really . . . Spock and Bones from Star Trek, without any integrated personality character such as James Tiberius Kirk?
  • Speaking of Sherlock, was it a deliberate choice to make Benedict Cumberbatch resemble a Mr. Darcy-like hero with that Regency-style coat flapping in the wind as he strides along? 
  • Do you find it heartening, as I do, when you go out shopping and see people being kind to one another--chatting with the food sample ladies at Costco, talking with cashiers, and generally behaving as though we all should get along?
  • Has anyone ever found some television show or movie that they actually wanted to watch for free on Amazon Prime? 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Wrecked, solitary, here"

Sadness and rage at those terrible events in Connecticut. Why, again, do all the deer hunters need assault rifles? Why does Mike Huckabee call himself a Christian when he is obviously filled with hate?

I am thinking of the children, teachers, and parents. I can only follow Bardiac's lead and post this.

I FELT a funeral in my brain,
  And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
  That sense was breaking through.
And when they all were seated,        5
  A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
  My mind was going numb.
And then I heard them lift a box,
  And creak across my soul        10
With those same boots of lead, again.
  Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell,
  And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,        15
  Wrecked, solitary, here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Signs of progress in discussing literature

**Content note:  post mentions sexual assault scenes in literature.**

After reading the post over at nicoleandmaggie's and seeing the word "creeper," I got to thinking about a difference in discussing literature back in the day and now.  "Creeper" wasn't a word that was used back then, nor was "rapey," not just because those words weren't invented yet, or because creepers didn't exist, but because the concept of whether a male character should behave this way seemed to be absolutely out of bounds in a literary discussion.

Literary discussion was all about being objective, and a character wasn't a person but a literary construct, and we weren't supposed to make moral judgments, and OMG Death of the Author and all of that.  While it was okay to discuss whether the character's twin forehead cowlicks had phallic/Satanic/symbolic overtones, his actions weren't really open to question.

Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves.  See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.

When we talked about novels this semester, though, my students would have none of it.  Yes, we talked about characters as literary constructs and about symbolism, but then someone would say, "Character Z is a total creeper" or "Why is he being so rapey in this scene?" And then we would talk about why Z is a creeper and how that affects the scene and why he shouldn't behave that way.

I don't think M. H. Abrams is going to include "creeper" or "rapey" in his Glossary of Literary Terms, but that's not the point. Talking about those ideas is not "moralizing," as it used to be called.  I think it's a sign that feminism and the awareness it raises about these issues is working.

Friday, December 07, 2012

"I'm going to miss this class"

Not as in "I'm going to miss this class, and did we do anything important, and can I have extra credit because my brother's girlfriend's roommate had to go to the airport and my car broke down on the way" but as in having students after the class linger and say this: "I'm going to miss this class and our discussions."

I'm going to miss it, too. I have had good experiences in teaching online courses, but I wonder how much of this semester's students' reaction is due to our being an "embodied class"  as Historiann's Baa Ram U calls it, where we looked at each other when we talked about the literature. I could see their faces, and if they were confused or enthusiastic about a point, I could call on that person or shift gears so that they could speak up.  What's the opposite--a disembodied class? But we all have bodies and lives, don't we, unless we're teaching at Northeast University for the Undead, so don't we need to recognize that their faces tell a story, too?

Figure 1. Undine makes a dramatic point.
In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) tells Joe Gillis (William Holden), "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" In an embodied classroom, you can have dialogue and faces. Maybe someone can promote what we used to call "classes" and now call "embodied classes" by saying that there is "synergistic value added" (or whatever buzzwords business prefers this year) because as an added bonus, you get faces along with your discussion.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The "get it done" grading system

It's the grading season right now, and we are pretty much all grading. Flavia just wrote a great post about this, and I'd agree: Grading can be satisfying if you just resolve to, well, "git 'er done."

The way I've graded for a few years goes like this:
1. Gather what you need to grade: papers, books for checking citations, etc.
2. Get yourself a "cool tool" or two. For me, it means this:
  •  Filling up pens with an interesting color of ink (green, purple) for the paper versions.
  •  Download e-versions to grade electronically on the iPad (iAnnotate has improved exponentially lately!).
  • Or, if it's early in the semester where I'm still giving lots of explanations about things, open up the file of auto-text or cut-and-paste entries so that I can use those for routine things and spend more time really writing comments about the content.
[Update, because Flavia asked in the comments: students have the choice of turning in a paper version OR an electronic version, so the "cool tool" I use depends on what they gave me.] Now, these are not Hammacher-Schlemmer cool tools, but they are what pass for cool tools with me. They may seem frivolous, but they aren't.  They make grading exciting (yes, they do), and they make you want to get started.

3. Write down the students' last names in some kind of order. I mix it up so that I don't read the same students' papers first or last every time.  This serves two purposes: (1) you can't avoid a student's paper and (2) you get to cross the names off the list.  If you are at all the "cross it off the list is very satisfying" kind of person, this really helps.

4. Get a timer and figure out how long you're going to allot for each paper.  You may need to adjust the time after the first few, but if you've been teaching for a lot of years, you should have a pretty good idea of how long they should take you. If you're tempted to take longer, ask yourself this: "Is the student going to benefit from this additional comment or correction?" Sometimes it's "yes," but often the answer is "no," and you have to move on.

5. Build in some breaks or changes in activity. Flavia recommends taking a break every 6 papers, and that sounds good. I also change it up by grading X number of electronic versions and then X number of paper versions. A change may not be as good as a rest, but it helps.

I have colleagues who prefer the "10 a day, every day" system, and if that works for them, that's great.  Since I am an ace procrastinator, what this meant was that I would spend a couple of hours dreading grading, a couple of hours grading, and then a few hours trying to settle down to writing or reading because my mind was still back with the papers.  Where grading is concerned, I'm a monotasker and definitely not a multitasker.

Another advantage is that for me, there's a norming process that goes on so that I can grade more consistently from paper to paper, since the overall features of the whole set and its issues are in my head somewhere.

Grading still takes longer than I think it ought to, given this system, but the end result is what Flavia talks about: once it's done, it is done, and you don't have to think about it any more until the next set. That's incredibly satisfying.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Writers' tech: trying out Scrivener

As the latest step in either true procrastination tactics or an attempt to get a handle on the whole manuscript and where the latest piece fits, I started moving chapters into Scrivener yesterday. I had tried before but had given up the lengthy tutorial because hey, the Internet has destroyed my attention span just as it has everyone else's. There was a 10-minute video at the site that gave me the basics, though, so with that I marched ahead.

What had made me buy it in the first place was the cult-like devotion that Scrivener users seem to have for the program, and who doesn't need another cult to join? Seriously, though, there were two main reasons for finally trying it:

  1. I can put the chapters along the side, one folder per chapter, and break it down from there, so I can really see what sections I've got and what I still have to write. 
  2. A corkboard with index cards on the screen! How cool is that? I can't figure out yet how to get the corkboard to look like the screenshot, but breaking the chapters down so that each main topic in one gets a section (and an index card) looks like a good plan.
A highly productive colleague who's writing a book right now has index cards of various colors on her walls as an organizational tool.  I tried that, but there were problems: I spent more time rearranging the cards than Martha Stewart would give to a wall display of antique plates, and, once I was on my feet, it was too easy to wander away from the computer in search of distractions. "Apply seat of pants to seat of chair" is still good writing advice, even if I can read things standing up or even walking on the treadmill. 

There are all sorts of other features I haven't figured out yet-- how to use the Research folder, for example.  Although my desk has a "mind-map" quality to it, with things spatially arranged for what I'm using now--the air-traffic controller model--I've never been able to use official mind mapping or brainstorming or whatever they're calling it this year. On the screen, there has to be a linear order, and what I'm hoping Scrivener can give me is a way to visualize the order even for things that are out of sight.