Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kwame Alexander and Li-Young Lee

I'm teaching two amazing poems today.  First, Kwame Alexander's "LIfe" and second, Li-Young Lee's "The Gift."

Days like this, I have a really, really good job.

Thursday, March 09, 2017


Earlier this week, I had a chat with a student who's missed more than half the class sessions this term because they're suffering from anxiety and depression.

I don't know what to say.  Shakespeare doesn't help here.  Don't kill a king.  Marry someone who's wit and personal qualities match yours if you can.  Don't ignore your day job if someone else is going to come in and cause problems for your dukedom.

It's not that I want to be unsympathetic, but I'm at a total loss.

I don't have much experience with real depression, but from the far sidelines experience I've had, it's horrible.

The thing is, if someone is too anxious or depressed to come sit in a classroom where little is demanded of them (a little small group discussion, maybe sharing ideas, but it's not like we're doing brain surgery and someone's going to die if we mess up), then really, my class is the least of their worries.  How can you hold down a job?  How do you deal with relationships?  (Bad things happen in relationships: loved ones get sick and need care and love, for example.  That can be hard under the best of circumstances.)

What I want to say, but don't, because I know it's not helpful is "just get up and drag yourself through the day like most of us do."

I don't say that, and I know it wouldn't help.  But seriously, I think for an awful lot of people in the world, getting up and dragging themselves through the day is how they get by a lot of the time.

And I think it's probably always been that way.  There was probably some Homo erectus out there who really didn't want to get out of the nest they'd made the night before, but then got hungry enough to either get up and go forage or decide to just lie there and get eaten by something else.  And until they couldn't any more, they got up and went to forage.  And even if they went out to forage, something else might have eaten them.

Those of us who are lucky, mostly get up and are happy to do what we're paid to do, at least mostly.  (I would be happier not to have to grade or fill out assessment paperwork, but there you go!)

I tried to help this student, gave them an option to help them catch up, dug out handouts for them, and so on.  I wish I felt even slightly confident that I could be helpful.

What's the most helpful thing for students with anxiety/depression (for an academic instructor) to do?

Edited to Add: I should have mentioned the counseling services stuff before.  The counseling services and the student were already working together, along with the Dean of Students office coordinating.

Thanks, all!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Losing Touch

There's a recent article by Deborah K. Fitzgerald in The Chronicle of Higher Ed about how "Our Hallways Are Too Quiet."  In the article, Fitzgerald laments that after a ten year absence (deaning), she returned to the faculty area to find it feeling empty.  She notes that faculty are busy working elsewhere, especially at home, something made possible by changing policies (allowing folks to work at home as a way to make things better for families, for example), and technology (networked computers enable us to work away from specific offices in ways we couldn't earlier; though to be honest, I've had networked computer capabilities for about 18 years now, and I'm guessing my campus isn't as tech quick as MIT, nor am I as tech savvy, in all likelihood, as she is).

Fitzgerald suggests that it's hard to get "work" done in campus offices, and that tenure demands for publication fuels faculty needs to work off campus.   (At NWU, requirements for tenure and promotion subtly shift up all the time, at least partly the faculty's fault, but also in response to administrative pressures.)

While that seems likely, I'd also suggest that faculty may be in their offices with doors closed, doing the additional paperwork sorts of work that seems to keep getting added to our loads in various ways.

Even basic stuff, such as writing syllabi, seems more complicated.  A while back, I found a syllabus I got in college.  It's one side of one page, and basically gives the readings for the semester and test dates.  We're now expected to give information about how we're evaluating students, what plagiarism is and how we'll deal with it, absence policies, various sorts of help available on campus, and on and on.  Some of it's cut and paste from previous terms, but sometimes we add new stuff; I have a colleague who wrote up a civility policy after dealing with a particularly rude student last semester.

And then there's "delivery," how we try to teach students whatever we're tying to teach.  How much time do people spend on powerpoints so that they can make them available to students?  I'm guessing a lot more than my art history prof used to spend picking out slides for a lecture.  In addition, we probably all spend time setting up course management sites, putting up assignments, arranging whatever.  (Does this take longer or less long than the copies of readings that were stapled into folder  for check out at my undergrad library for readings not in the textbook?  I don't know.  I think I probably assign more out of text readings than I was assigned, but I wasn't an English major.)

Don't forget about advising and student services: we're all asked to send notes to the Dean of Students if we have students "of concern," students who aren't coming to class enough, students who seem depressed, students who come to class hungover.  We're supposed to track these students' emotional states and notify whatever offices on campus seem appropriate.  (And in order to do that, we're asked to take special computer modules about student depression or whatever.)

Finally, there's the endless assessment game, and all the meetings we have to attend to decide what and how we're going to assess whatever it is, and then the additional time to fill out the forms that the assessment folks demand, with ever changing goals and targets.

And all the committee work that needed to be done ten years ago still needs to be done, but here in my department, we're down about 20% of faculty from 10 years ago, so we have fewer people doing the work, and more work (assessment, especially) is required all the time.

So here's what bothered me about the article.  Fitzgerald seems surprised by these changes.  But here at NWU, at least, people write bigger syllabi in response to administrative requirements (read: the dean's office sends a mandate).  People make up powerpoints and study guides because administration pressures them to in some fields.  And by golly, administrative pressures are behind every single bit of endless assessment work we do.

Did she not notice as dean that the administration was making continually increasing demands on faculty?  (Was she not making those demands or seeing them made somehow?)

Fitzgerald comes up with a typically deanly remedy: she praises the creation of
events such as regular colloquia, lunches, teas, and happy hours to give people a chance to interact. Some may view those social opportunities as a huge time-waster. I would argue that, on the contrary, collegiality and collaboration are part of what we are paid for.
I'm not the best happy hour person (I have a low enough alcohol capacity to not drink anything alcoholic if I have to drive), but these sound pretty nightmarish to me. 

If we really want to make departments more sociable (and I'm not sure we do, for a variety of reasons), then reduce workloads, and give people opportunities to chat over whatever relaxing beverages they like.  But it has to come with a workload reduction that means my friend with a two year old isn't worried about making the pickup from daycare on time, and so the TT colleague who's desperately working on an article can take a breath away.  And the atmosphere has to be actually welcoming.  (My department's social functions pretty much always feel like straight, married folks sit in pairs and talk about being straight married folks in the most gender-normed ways you can imagine.  Maybe that feels welcoming to some straight married folks, but it doesn't to me.)

We also need to recognize that if the sociability fantasy is based on everyone "back in the day" having had a stay at home spouse, having been all white, all ivy-educated or whatever, then we need to rethink whether we want that sociability.  If we've done anything right in the past 20 years (and the closed door thing has certainly been a problem for more than 10 years), then we've increased the diversity of our faculty in many ways: we have more people of color, more LGBTQ folks, more women with children, more folks from different social classes.  Not everyone may want "tea" if it means pretending we're all upper crust British wannabe aristocrats.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Coughing and News

I've had a cold for about two weeks now, it's all stuffy nose and coughing.  Ugh.  It's not as bad as the one earlier this academic year, that lasted until I took antibiotics (prescribed by a PA) after a couple of months of hacking.

But coughing gets very old, very fast.

I haven't practiced my violin for about three days.  It feels like months.  I keep coughing and sneezing, and it's really hard to play anything when I'm coughing and sneezing.  I've also spent a whole lot of time trying to sleep, wishing I were asleep, and on the verge of sleep.  It's hard to sleep when I'm coughing, and that makes me more tired, which makes me go to be earlier, and get more frustrated when I cough instead of sleeping.  And it probably doesn't help much with getting better.

I had two pieces of good news this past week.  One was the official notice about my sabbatical.  The other was that the search I chaired has finalized a very good hire.  I blogged a little about diversity issues in hiring here (Hiring Faculty of Color) and here (Diversity Statements) this fall.  I'm very pleased with our hire, and so is pretty much everyone else who's talked to me about it.  (I've been stopped in the halls, gotten emails, and such.)

But can I say, as someone who's in a department that teaches writing, and so, one would hope, is likely to attract people who've been trained in writing and stuffs: holy cow, some people in our field can't write their way out of a paper bag.  It's not the majority, but there are definitely some.

Here's a hint: if the ad says that the ideal candidate will show evidence of X, then by golly, show us some evidence of X.  If X is teaching excellence, talk convincingly about your teaching excellence, about the work you do to teach well, and so forth.  If X is doing handstands, talk about doing handstands. 

Can I also say, our HR department is a real mess right now with all the retirements and people leaving for better jobs.  Their messiness added a lot of stress to certain people's lives in regards to the search.

I've had it up to here (hand at forehead) with colleagues who don't do some basic aspect of the job, but who expect the rest of us to fill them in.  And when these same colleagues make snotty comments about the job we did in their absence, I don't want to hear them.

On the other hand, I'm going to Kalamazoo!  When I started back to school to study English, one of my first teachers was a medievalist who talked about what a great conference Kalamazoo is, and for the first time, I'm going!  And that teacher and I are going to be able to get together and catch up a bit, which will be splendid.  She's one of the best teachers I had, and was always super encouraging to me.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Next Step: Vibrato and Shifting

At my lesson yesterday, Strings had me practice a small bit where I shift my left hand (the one that fingers the strings) up the violin so that the first finger is where the third finger usually is.  This is "third" position.  It's a little step, but I'm excited.  And I got a shifting practice exercise and a vibrato exercise.  I know someone who plays the violin (non-professionally) who said that for him, when he learned vibrato, that made everything so much better.  Since I'm pretty happily playing what I can, it will be fun to have it even better when it gets there.  (I think vibrato takes a good while to get on violin.)

We also talked about learning how to play by ear.  The plan is for me to start with really basic tunes, the sort of things we know deeply, like "Row, Row" and such, and just work them out. 

So after my lesson, when I did my practice so that I can remember what I learned at my lesson session, I worked out "Happy Birthday" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Row, Row."  It's going to take some practice!

We had 6-8" of snow last night, so it's time to rev up the snowthrower and clear some ground!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

First Outside Bike Ride of the Year!

I don't think I've ridden outside this early in the year since I moved here.  Pretty amazing.

I almost fell because I hit an area of ice without being able to stop in time.  My rear tire slid out, but I was able to unclip and get a foot out in time, so I didn't fall.

It was really great to be outside!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Public Performance

I performed on the violin before an audience of more than my teacher or one other amused person today.  In front of a fairly good sized group, in fact. 

It went pretty well.

Don't get me wrong, it was no big recital or anything.  Just a good step for me.

Strings is primarily a violist, and put together a viola day on campus today, with master classes for three different levels of student (middle school, high school, and college), lecture/workshops, and a big concert (and rehearsals for that).  All of them open to the public and free.  (You had to sign up ahead to play viola, though.)

But let me start from the beginning of my day.  The first thing I was going to was mid morning, so I decided to practice before.  Except my strings were all out of tune.  So I went to tune my A string (second over), but instead, wound the peg for the E string (the highest, thinnest one), and yes, broke it before I even realized.  (But, the good news is that I had bought a set of replacement strings about a month ago; the bad news is that I don't know how to change strings yet).

So, I went to the master class, and before it started, while folks were in the milling about stage, I asked one of the college viola players how long/hard it is to change a string (and explained that I'd broken my E string; the viola folks on campus know that I'm learning violin).  She said it takes about five minutes to change a string, and anyone here (all the viola folks) should be able to do it.

So after the fascinating master class (I sat in on the college one), I went home, had lunch, picked up my violin (and strings) and went back.  When I got there, one of the college players I'd met before was sitting at the registration table, so I asked her, and she changed my string for me, and tuned me up.  (I'm ever grateful.  These students are super!)

Then I went to the workshop by Strings on performance anxiety, and learned some strategies (because, as I've written before, I got so nervous playing for a "test" that I was shaking).  There were a few minutes before the time was up, so Strings asked who wanted to play something for the rest.  A couple of students volunteered, and while they were getting instruments out, Strings reminded everyone that we're all rooting for people, we're a friendly audience.  Which was true.  Three students played, and they did well, but there were still a few minutes, and Strings asked for more.  Silence.  So I finally asked if I could play violin, and she said yes, enthusiastically.  So while I was getting my violin out, she explained to the students who I was, and that I've been playing about a year.  And I got up and played the opening two sections of the first piece of Book 3.

And you know what, it was pretty good.  I didn't have time to fret, and everyone was very nice about it, and I sounded pretty good (for where I'm at as a violinist so far).  And I didn't die, or shake even.

So that was great, to at least do it and stand in front of a group, on a little stage, and play.  To have at least done that was very good for me.

I don't think Joshua Bell (or whatever other violinist comes to your mind) needs to worry about competition for gigs just yet, though.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Politcal Conundrum - Interdisciplinary Basketweaving Style

I just got off the phone with a colleague over in Interdisciplinary Basketweaving.  They've got a special course taught once a year by a deanling with an MA, during one of our breaks in the regular semester.  They've been teaching the course for at least ten years, maybe more.

One group of basketweavers finds the course and the deanling's approach to it unsatisfactory.  The deanling isn't qualified as a basketweaver, and doesn't teach the sorts of things that basketweavers think are really vital.  The course might be better housed in Underwater Arts, but the Underwater Arts folks said "no" many years ago because the course wasn't using an approach that's vital to the faculty over in Underwater Arts.  And so, it found its way to Interdisciplinary Basketweaving, where it's been taught pretty much with the deanling doing their thing, ever since.  And Interdisciplinary Basketweaving doesn't really have the power of a department such as Underwater Arts, and there's a deanling involved, so it happened despite some people's reservations.

The deanling wants to make the course fit a campus requirement.  That in itself isn't unusual, since lots of courses fulfil one or another requirement.  But this iteration of this course the deanling teaches isn't the only iteration, and the other iterations don't really fit the same requirement. 

So, in order to make this work, it looks like the deanling needs a new course, something that's not umbrella-ish, and just includes what the deanling does.

Some folks want to stand up against the new course because it doesn't really work for Interdisciplinary Basketweaving.  And the deanling really isn't well-qualified to teach the course.

On the other hand, to be honest, the deanling's been teaching this course for 10 plus years, and if I'd taught anything for 10 plus years, you can bet I'd be pretty well-qualified to teach it by then.  (Because I'd have studied my ass off to do so.  Wouldn't you?)

It seems to me that the time to draw the line was back when the deanling first started teaching this course.  To suddenly say, "you've been teaching it for ten plus years, but now you're not qualified" seems stupid now.  Why has Interdisciplinary Basketweaving not stopped it way back?

The answer, of course, is that the deanling is a deanling, and so it's convenient to let deanlings do what they want.  It was then, and it probably will be now.  It was easy to imagine the deanling would do this course, and then get bored, and give it up.  But that hasn't happened.  (There's a political payoff for the deanling, I think.  Also a bit of financial, I bet.)

I guess one question is, is the course doing what it should be doing well enough?

If not, is there a way to get it to "well enough"?

Students who've taken the course (mostly first and second year students) tend to think it's wonderful.  It makes them feel good.  They think they've learned lots.

Maybe they have learned lots, but they haven't learned the "lots" that either the Basketweaver faculty or the Underwater Arts faculty think they should, mostly in terms of critical thinking and theoretical understanding (these aren't grad school sorts of theoretical understanding, but the sorts of theoretical understanding introduced and taught in lower level Interdisciplinary Basketweaving and Underwater Arts courses).

Take a stand or no?

I'm so bad at political stuff.  I hate the idea that faculty folks didn't take a stand 10 plus years ago, but I also understand why they didn't.  But I don't want to stick my neck out, either.

Except, you know, isn't this flattering of authority types a slippery slope to worse?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Red Lips?

The local college feminists are sponsoring something called a "Red Lips Project."

My initial reaction was to just wonder why.  I don't really want to criticize young feminists, but this seems so... heteronormative or something.  Traditionally, in western culture, red lips are about looking sexually appealing to men, no?

Then I figured, this must be a "thing" that I just don't know about.  And I found out that the idea comes from this tumblr called The Red Lips Project.

The idea, according to the about page on the tumblr:
Women are intrinsically powerful. But I realized that many of the women in my life don’t always have a space to express their power. I wanted to create a project to change this and give them that space. 

As a photographer, I have always been fascinated by the imagery of red lips. To me, red symbolizes power; it is a sign of strength and courage. This was corroborated further when rapper A$AP Rocky stated that dark skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick. He certainly wasn’t the first to say this and he certainly won’t be the last. This inspired a movement where women of color posted pictures of themselves wearing red lipstick. These pictures were just one way in which women were able to fight back the beauty norms and instead revel in their own ideals. 

When I saw these pictures, what stood out to me was how powerful each woman looked; they had all maintained their individual identities, but the underlying power behind each picture was the unifying element. 

I took inspiration from this movement to create The Red Lips Project. Each woman I photograph is asked the question, “What makes you feel powerful?” My only other request is that they wear red lipstick as it serves as both an aesthetic and symbolic unifier. Every other detail in the photograph is the subject’s decision. 

The Red Lips Project serves to remind women everywhere of their intrinsic power. I find this to be a therapeutic process for both myself and the women I photograph; we don’t always take time to pause and remind ourselves why we should feel powerful. I hope in exploring this blog you too can find ways to remind yourself of why you are powerful. 
So, I gather there's a critique in this project about a rapper who said that dark skinned women shouldn't wear red lipstick.  From reading what he said (here's [a version of?] the interview and an article about the interview that has the quote where he says dark skinned women shouldn't wear red lipstick, and also an article about how he responded to criticism about what he said from women of color) he's not making a feminist critique of makeup, but more saying that he doesn't like it much. 

This complicates things, doesn't it? 

My reaction is still that red lipstick doesn't feel empowering to me.  But having read some critiques and responses of the general idea (not specifically aimed at the rapper's comments) (here's one from Essence (2014), and here's one from Essence in 2016), I think there's a whole lot of thinking I haven't done about lipstick, especially for women of color. 

I don't know if my students have, either.  (The college feminists here tend to be pretty white, and overall, this isn't a campus where most white students are really thoughtfully critiquing racism.)

What are your thoughts?

(I don't wear make-up, and am unlikely to notice if someone else is, unless it's really sparkly or something; I'm also very bad at noticing what people are wearing unless it's a really strong color that appeals to me.  The bonus is that you can wear the same thing to see me every day and I won't be bored.  The downside is that I probably won't notice when you've put on an especially wonderful outfit and look especially wonderful in it.  I try to dress myself so that my clothes are reasonably clean, weather appropriate, and won't get me arrested.  So far, so good on the arrest part.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A String

The last week, before my violin lesson, I was getting sort of frustrated by how bad I sound on the violin.  It was like, every time I hit the A string, I wouldn't set it vibrating right off, so there'd be this scratchy nastiness.  And then it would "catch" and start vibrating, and sound less nasty.

Still, the scratchy nastiness was frustrating.

So when I started my lesson, I told my teacher about my frustration with the A string.  And I tried to play a note on the A string, but it came out sounding pretty well.  Argh!

Strings had me play my piece, and I did okay, but again with the scratchy nastiness.  Except Strings being Strings, knew what was happening, and could explain and help me solve it.

The scratchiness tended to happen when I crossed to the A string, especially from the E string (which is a fifth higher).  As Strings explained, you have to bow each of the strings slightly differently.  The higher strings, you bow more lightly, and a bit quicker.  The lower strings, your arm feels heavier, and you can move the bow a bit less quickly.  So, there's a point where on any string, the bow "grabs" the string just so and vibrates it.  Voila!

But when I was crossing (that means switching strings), I had played the E string appropriately lightly, but that lightness doesn't work on the A string.  And I was unconsciously adjusting, but only after I'd played a note (or two, or three) on the A string.  And then when I crossed down, I had the same problem on the D string (but I was spending way less time on the D string with this piece).  And up again, I'd be too heavy on the A string, and make a slightly different scratchy nastiness.

So, for example, if you look at the Gavotte I've been working on, the starting B is on the A string, and then the jump from the D to G puts me on the E string, and then back down to the A string.  That's where I'd have the first scratchy nastiness.  As you can see (at least if you read music in a basic way), there are a lot of string crossings in this piece from the A to E and E to A.  (At my level of violin playing, I can play up to the E at the top of the music staff on the A string (by using my pinky.  From the E up, is on the E string.  Deciding when to use the pinky E vs the open E string E seems to be about what makes sense in fingering.).  I was having a lot of opportunities for scratchy nastiness, and pretty much making a lot of scratchy nastiness out of each one.

Strings gave me two exercises to work on for crossing down to the A string.  One is to sort of hold my bow in a fist, which makes the arm feel heavier, and makes it easier to get the weight right when I cross down.  (But clumsier in other ways.)  The other is to hesitate just before crossing, and think about the heaviness of the arm, and then cross to the A string.  That moment of hesitation is enough to get the weight right for me (mostly).

Do you know about TwoSetViolin?  They've got a youtube bit about how it feels when your teacher solves your problem.  It was like that. 

It's fascinating, because real string players are constantly making these fine adjustments, but as a beginner, I really have to slow down and think my way through things.  I mean, I was sort of aware of the different arm weight feel, and was doing it okay with scales and such, but when I was focused on my piece, I wasn't doing it.

After my lesson, the next day, I worked through book 1 and part of book 2, paying close attention to the arm weight on crossings, and it was so fun to hear how much better I sound.  (I also did my scales, technique exercises, and worked on my new piece a bit.)

The next day, I finished working through book 2, still focusing on the bow feel, and it's so much better.

I think about April of last year, I found some sheet music on the web.  One was the "Ashokan Farewell," which you probably have heard if you've seen the Civil War documentary.  (It's a recently written piece, though, and not from the period.  But it's absolutely beautiful.)  The other was "Turkey in the Straw."  "Turkey in the Straw" was my Father's go to piece when he pulled out his violin if there were songs to be sung, kids to be entertained.  He and my great Aunt (a professional organist) would play by ear for Christmas carols and such, but "Turkey in the Straw" was always in the mix.  So the piece is special in my memory.

Anyway, I found those, and I could sort of muddle through "Ashokan Farewell" a bit, but "Turkey in the Straw" was totally beyond me.

And then yesterday, for some reason, having practiced my stuff, I pulled them back out, and boy, I could really hear a difference.  I could play them both, slowly, yes (which makes total sense for "Ashokan Farewell"), but play them.  I'm going to add them to my practice a bit.