Archive for April, 2006

catching up

April 29, 2006

My husband Russell keeps very current when it comes to music. He’s always bringing home CDs two months before they’re “hits” and his iTunes space is filled with bands I’ve never heard of, even in passing. Needless to say, he’s been enjoying the new Yeah Yeah Yeah’s album “Show Your Bones” for some time now.

Me? I’m just now wrapping my ears around the White Stripes, a band whose entrée into the mainstream music scene took place about two years ago. Lately I’ve been revisiting the bands of Russell’s college and post-college days: Kruder and Dorfmeister, Nightmares on Wax, Morcheeba, Portishead–bass beats and electronics–stuff I would have scoffed at in my younger days, but that I now enjoy a great deal. I guess it’s easy-listening for a girl who used to blare Led Zeppelin’s first album–but I’m getting old.

Anyway, I know critics have panned “Show Your Bones” in the typical “It’s their sophomore effort and it’s okay that it’s not as great as that one song ‘Bang,'” but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t singing “Gold Lion” all day yesterday.


and then it all just clicked

April 26, 2006

Today in class, one of my students said, “I posted late–I didn’t get my post done by 10:00 this morning. Is that okay?”

I told her that it was fine, that I was a softie, despite my best efforts to be “tough,” and that she’d get full credit.

In my head I was thinking, “Sh*t! I haven’t posted to my blog, either!”

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am blogging with my students during these last weeks of school. Or not blogging, as the case may be.

Anyway, for this particular post, I asked students to write about how they felt about writing–in general or for an online audience. As I walked back to my office after class, thinking about my slacker status and what I might write, I realized that I didn’t know how I felt about writing myself. I mean, seriously, I teach writing for a living. How can I not have a ready answer to this question.

I procrastinated for awhile, checked my favorite blog for inspiration, and finally just sat at my computer with feelings of fraud (I can’t fulfill an assignment I’m asking of my students) and fear (oh my god, I should just quit school right now!) And then it hit me. Clear as day.

I write to learn, but mostly, I write to teach. I’m a naturally curious person so I ask a lot of questions. Some questions I am willing to let go (Why is female author George Eliot so “mean” to her female characters?) but some I can’t (Is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species partly responsible for the Eugenics movement?)

And then I research, and I write, write, write. Partly because I want to answer my own question, but also because I think the question is important enough to answer–in writing–so that others can learn as well.

That’s probably the most arrogant reason for writing ever. But that’s it.

can you see the real me? should you?

April 18, 2006

Last semester I taught English 113, an advanced composition course for first-year students. In order to enroll in English 113, students must place into the course by scoring high on an AP test, or they must submit a successful portfolio to the English Department over the summer. As a result, the vast majority of the students in my class were bright, confident, and savvy about the business of getting where they wanted to go. I mean, these students dedicated a portion of the summer vacation to composing and revising a writing portfolio—they were exceptional students all around.

So, when one of my students visited my office hours to talk with me about a paper, I was a little surprised at this portion of our conversation:

Me: This paper is your second about political issues. Are you thinking about a career in politics?
Student: Um, maybe. I’m not sure yet.
Me: Well, you might consider taking a few courses in political science at any rate—then you can get a taste without having to commit to a lifetime.
Student: Yeah. I want to take some courses. Actually, I wanted to minor in political science. But I’ve heard the professors are extremely *fill-in political leaning* there.
Me: So?
Student: Well, I’m very *fill-in opposite political leaning* and I’m afraid that would affect my grades.
Me (shocked): I mean, I can understand that—but these people are professionals. They will evaluate you on your work, not your beliefs.

Now, I should tell you that the students in my English 113 classes were not shy about making their opinions known. They knew how to present their positions on any given topic. And this student was no exception.

The reason I bring this incident up now is that I’ve been thinking about politics in the classroom. As a teacher, I try to avoid bringing politics into my classroom at all costs. I very consciously “play neutral” in an effort to circumvent any and all political discussions. Granted, this semester I’m teaching an advanced composition course focusing on life narratives, so it’s a little easier to skirt the issues, but even when I teach first-year writing, I try to be as balanced as I can.

Lately, however, this position has me feeling weird and maybe even a little duplicitous. Why should I have to extract a part of myself every time I stand up in front of my students? And conversely, why shouldn’t students in my classes have the benefit of seeing that, as a teacher, I can have political beliefs but not allow them to affect my grading policies? I mean, really, it is possible to disagree with someone and still perform your job. And furthermore, wouldn’t it be better for students to know who I am and how I feel just in case I am using my political beliefs as a compass? (I’m not, but what if I was?!?)

I also agree in large part with this blogger; ideas do matter, and if a college writing classroom doesn’t qualify as a safe place to raise issues and ideas and talk about them, to engage in debate and to understand how arguments are constructed, deconstructed, and/or deployed, then I don’t know where else students will learn these things. (Certainly they learn them outside of the academy, but with perhaps more serious consequences for missteps.)

However, there are more reasons to leave my politics out of the classroom. First, sometimes they simply don’t belong. There’s no reason students need to know how I feel on gun control if we’re discussing elements of autobiography. Second, I would hate it if a student didn’t feel comfortable in my class, or avoided taking an English class altogether, because they perceived me to believe one thing or the other.

But sometimes I’m just plain scared.

Recently, the Ohio Legislature floated this bill for an Academic Bill of Rights. This part of it worries me a great deal:

(C) Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.

What, exactly, do they mean by “controversial matter”? And what qualifies as “legitimate pedagogical purpose”? It’s not at all clear to me. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the ruling became more or less rigid with each individual case.

And then there’s this little gem: a new feature at Miami University. Ethics Point. Any student who has a complaint about a teacher can submit an anonymous report to this site. So now I’m under constant threat to avoid “controversial matter,” to make sure every minute of my class serves a “legitimate pedagogical purpose.” Is it any wonder, with such constraints in place, that I chose to keep my politics under wraps?

But I can’t make up my mind…am I failing myself and the students in my classes by not being “real,” by not offering a good example of a teacher with political beliefs, by not opening up my classroom to political discussions so that students can engage with each other in a relatively low stakes environment? I go back and forth all the time.

humility in latin and greek

April 14, 2006

As friends and family might confirm if asked, I’ve been a bit grumpy for the past few weeks. Spring is quite possibly my least favorite season. I’d take November through February in a minute if I could. Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly wonderful aspects of spring: the hyacinths, tulips, and lilies of the valley are beautiful and fragrant; the fact that I can open up all of the windows in my place makes me happy; baseball season is finally upon us in earnest. These are all good things, I admit.

However, spring also means a TON of work. Student papers pile up, committees trying to wrap up business for the year meet with more frequency (and for seemingly longer lengths of time), the need for letters of recommendation increases. The list goes on and on. However, the real reason I’ve been grumpy lately comes from having to write a STUPID prospectus for my dissertation.

PROSPECTUS: [a. L. pr spectus (- s) a view, PROSPECT n. So F. prospectus (1723 in Hatz.-Darm.).]
1. A description or account of the chief features of a forthcoming work or proposed enterprise, circulated for the purpose of obtaining support or subscriptions. Also, a description or account of the activities of a school or other educational institution.

Now, the bitch of this situation is that I make my students write prospectuses all the time. In fact, as a teacher of writing, I honestly believe writing a prospectus is *the* most useful exercise a writer can do. Even drafting the shortest plan or outline forces the writer to stop for a minute and THINK about what it is she wants to say. I can’t imagine assigning a paper of more than five pages in length without asking for some sort of writing plan or prospectus.However, when it came time for me to write one for my dissertation (final page count probably in the 175s to 200s) I felt insulted and put upon. Why did I have to take the time to write up this now 30-page document just to explain to my dissertation committee what I was going to write about? Why couldn’t I simply jump into the reading and researching (which is the part I like best anyway)? Obviously my committee is torturing me, I thought.Mind you, now that I’m almost done with it, I recognize the importance of the exercise. I know I could never write my dissertation without it. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve complained about it pretty much non-stop to whomever I can force to listen to me. And that, my friends, makes me a

Hypocrite [a. OF. ypo-, ipocrite (mod.F. hypocrite), ad. eccl. L. hypocrita, ad. Gr. an actor on the stage, pretender, dissembler, f. ]
1. One who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his real ones; hence generally, a dissembler, pretender.

So, there you have it. A nice fat slice of humble pie…

the grade vacuum

April 13, 2006

I do not live in the town where I teach. When I admit (?) to people that I commute from Cincinnati to Oxford in order to study and teach at Miami University, I receive either a.) sympathy (the drive is a little dull), b.) condescension (who would EVER want to live in a city!?!), or c.) censure (you must waste a lot of time and money…).

While response b.) irritates me to no end, it’s response c.) that I have the most trouble wrapping my mind around. I mean, sure, gas is expensive. And yeah, I could use the hour and a half it takes me to get there and back three times a week. For a girl who used to run six miles, four or five times a week, yes, the commute can be a real drag. But to me, the time is well-spent thinking. Maybe I’m a little biased, but I sometimes feel that time to ourselves is the first thing that goes when we get busy. Remember when you were a kid and you had hours to imagine? To be curious about the world around you? To wonder how things worked? To contemplate “what’s inside that old clock radio” and then take it apart? Gone.

So far this post is taking a rather circuitous route to my main point, which is about grading and response. I spent my drive home today (with my arm out the window–finally, a good driving day!) thinking about the absolutely, completely flawed way students and teachers interact about grades.

Today I returned a long paper to my students. It was a long process on both ends: them writing and me responding. They worked incredibly hard on these papers. They spent weeks germinating their ideas, planning their essays, drafting, getting feedback from peers, trying new styles of writing, etc., etc., etc. We even took time to create a rubric together. They determined what mattered to them in terms of evaluation and we developed a series of criteria for their work. And, without overstating my own contribution to this process, I hope, I spent a good deal of mental energy reading and thinking about their papers. I read them twice, thrice, sometimes even four times in order to make as informed a response as I could.

So, we both go through this process and then BAM. Today I gave them their papers back. And that’s the end of the conversation. As students, they get some feedback about their papers. If they want, they can talk to me about my comments and/or revise their work. But for the teacher, that’s it. We never know how our comments “went down.”

Grading is such a sticky business in the first place. It’s absolutely subjective (and anyone who tells you otherwise is a bald-face liar) and it’s painful and it’s awkward and it’s stressful (not the reading, mind you, the responding–you want to say it just right) and then it’s over and you never really know if it was any use at all. I hate that. In my opinion, the vacuum that’s created when the papers leave the teacher’s hands and go to the student’s is the source of a lot of teacher burnout and frustration. It’s like a boomerang that never returns. You just wonder where it went.

The class I’m teaching now (English 225) is one of two courses required by future English teachers. I sometimes feel that I should raise these issues in class, that we should all talk about grading as a process. They’re going to have to do it, too, and they’re going to feel just as conflicted as I do. As all teachers do, I think. Why don’t teachers ever talk about this issue? Even typing it out right now seems weird, as if I’m supposed to “know” that my comments are helpful. Teacher as authority–what a farce!


April 7, 2006

to my blog. My name is Jen.

In the coming weeks, my students will be learning how to create and post to their own blogs. Rather than be the teacher who creates assignments for her students but won’t try them herself, I’m going to take part in this exercise. After reading Jim Corder’s 1979 essay “What I Learned in School,” I think twice about asking my students to write or produce something that I wouldn’t. So here it is: a blog for class.

(By the way, if you teach writing, or you plan on teaching writing, I highly recommend Corder’s work.)

I have some serious reservations about participating in this assignment, though. I worry that I’ll somehow stifle my students’ creativity, purposes, or voices by entering what they might wish to be their own space (even as I acknowledge that my students have agency and can do whatever they please). I worry that I’ll smudge the lines between teacher and student in such a way that we’ll all feel awkward or uncomfortable.

I also worry a little that my nerdiness will horrify them, but not too much: after a semester I guess they’ve made up their minds on that score already.

And so it begins…

The title refers to two hobbies of mine: one lifelong (writing) and one current (knitting).