Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Practice Really Does Make a Difference

On July 13th, I did my three test pieces from Suzuki Book 3 for my teacher, Strings, and passed, making me, according to Strings, an "intermediate" Suzuki student.  In old D&D terms, I'm level 4!

Before that, for about a month, I was totally focused on memorizing and working on those 3 pieces, getting them to the point where I could play them as well as possible, from memory.  It was hard.  Most days, I was practicing about an hour and a half to two hours because I really wanted to pass into the next Suzuki book before I left.

Part of the issue is that Strings was leaving for a music camp thing, and won't be back here until after I've gone.  And then I'll be birding in Scotland, and won't be practicing then.  And then I'll have to get a violin at the Abbey (they said they probably have one I can use, and if not will help me find a student rental).  But, in terms of memorizing, it would be hard to be away for two or three weeks and then go back to trying to play those pieces from memory.

But it worked out!  And I've started into Book 4.  I've also started back working on the technique books I have.  There are 4 of them.

1.  Ševčík bowing
2.  Ševčík technique (more fingering than bowing) (first position)
3.  Whistler's Intro to 3rd and 5th positions (hand and finger, mostly)
4.  Trott's Melodious Double Stops

Each of these helps me focus on a specific area where I need to focus (and really, pretty much everyone at my level needs to focus on bowing, fingering, positions, and double stops, I guess).  But for the past couple of months, I haven't practiced these as much because of focusing on the three test pieces.

I posted before about working on the Ševčík books, and how hard they are.  That was back in January, and from what it says, I got the Ševčík books last summer, and started working on them.

I've been better about the bowing book than the fingering book.  Today in my practice session, I couldn't even remember where I'd left off with the fingering book, so I decided to start at the beginning, since they're so hard.

As you can see from that previous post, the first set of exercises starts with slurred quarter notes.  Last summer and into winter, it took ten minutes or so to be able to slur the notes in a single measure more or less okay.  So on a given day, I might make it through one new measure, and one old, and then eventually, a whole line of old, and so on.  (Because I did improve.)  And then I'd start the next set, and basically the same slow process.

Today, I started and played the whole first set pretty much straight through, with a few mistakes, but mostly way, way better than I remembered.  It was pretty amazing to me, because I go along practicing, and often don't realize that I've improved, but then I go back, and something that was really hard is not nearly as hard.  And then it's obvious that I actually have improved.  And that makes me feel good!

So I remember for the future:

1.  Ševčík bowing - exercise 4, #30 (page 9)  (Basically, each exercise is a few lines of music, and then the page and next page are full of bowing variations for those few lines).
2.  Ševčík technique (more fingering than bowing) (first position) - back to the first exercise on the A string
3.  Whistler's Intro to 3rd and 5th positions (hand and finger, mostly) - G major, #62 (page 10)
4.  Trott's Melodious Double Stops - played through #1-3, worked on #4.

A Little Adventure before I Go

I have 8 days before I need to be on a plane to London!  I'm excited, overwhelmed, and more overwhelmed.

I've now finished all the big projects that absolutely have to be finished before I go except the whole class prep project.  There are two other projects I should also get further on.  But at least I've taken steps on one of them.

My friend, K, who's going to house sit has moved in.  So far, this arrangement is working out really well.  I hope he enjoys living in the house!  (He's a really good guy, and easy to get along with.)

I started riding my bike again this past weekend, just on a local trail.  And on Sunday, I was thinking about cutting my ride short to work on something else, so I turned off the trail onto a road in order to be able to turn around more easily, and saw a sign that pointed to a landing and said something about the joys of taking your kid fishing.  But I'd never heard of this landing, and it's only about a mile off the bike trail.  I rode up the road, which I'd thought ended at the gravel mine (visible from the trail crossing) and realized that it turned and went on from there.  What I found was a little park area, with a gravel/packed dirt and pothole parking area, a few picnic tables, and a little paved boat ramp with a sign saying that it was four something miles up river to the landing near campus, and 5 something miles down river to a landing further down.

I had a plan.  It wasn't a particularly cunning plan, but a plan.  I could put the kayak on the car with the bike inside, and drop the kayak at the landing near campus along with my life vest, paddles, and so on.  Then take the car (with the bike) to the new landing, leave the car there, and ride the bike up to the landing near campus, lock it there, get in the kayak, and go down river.  So I could do my own drop off and pick up because it's fairly close.

And that's what I did yesterday.  I was a little anxious about it, especially worried about what if I missed the landing somehow?

The thing is, right across from the landing is a ski jump, and that's visible from pretty far away, and not easy to miss, so the chances of my missing the landing and having to go another five miles were low.

The weather was good, and I told a couple friends what I was up to, and texted them before I got on the water with my eta (and then when I got out again).  But still, doing things all alone makes me a bit apprehensive.  It doesn't usually stop me doing them, but it makes me worry a bit along the way.

Here are some pictures from the adventure:

My kayak at the first landing.  (There's an ice rink right near, owned by the city and university jointly, and the city rec people were kind enough to let me leave my life vest and paddles and such there.  I used my bike lock to lock the kayak to the sign, probably illegally.  But it was out of the way at least.)

At the second landing, ready to get on the bike!

Bike parked at the ice rink, and locked up!

Kayak loaded and ready to go!

Gorgeous day on the river, mostly very quiet and calm.

Ski jump in the distance!  (Why was I worried I'd miss that?  I blame my recent reading of The Mill on the Floss, where Maggie becomes a "fallen woman" because Stephen purposefully "misses" landing at the town where they were supposed to land, and ends up going so far that they have to be sort of rescued by a ship and spend the night on it.)

A much closer view of the ski jump.  I really don't know how anyone has the courage to slide down that and fly through the air.  But they have big competitions here during winter.

The landing (with my car parked up the hill).

Pulled out!
Packed and ready to go back and pick up my bike!

All in all, it was a really lovely adventure, and I'm glad I went.  I'd like to try the next leg, too, maybe next summer!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Learning Language?

As is my wont, I'm listening to a book on CD in my car.  I usually favor history and lectures and such, because the continuity isn't as important as with, say, fiction.  Today I was running errands, listening to a lecture on language.  The lecturer is going over some of the evidence for/against the idea that grammar is innate/inborn in humans, and as part of his discussion, he's talking about how very easy it is for little kids to learn language compared to adults.  Yes, he basically says that little kids don't even have to work at learning language.

But here's the thing.  If you've spent time with little kids, you realize that they're working really hard for hours every day learning language, learning to manipulate the world, and so on.   I think we're disrespecting little kids somewhat if we don't recognize that they're working really hard at all the learning they're doing.  It looks like it's not work, and hopefully there's plenty of fun and play involved, but even that is brain work.

If I spent 8+ hours a day constantly having people talking to me within a context, giving me feedback on my attempts to talk, I'd learn a language more quickly than otherwise.  In fact, I learned Spanish in an immersion program as a young adult, and within a couple months could hold a pretty decent conversation.  I didn't sound great or perfect, but I could hold a basic conversation with someone who was willing to be patient, and many people were willing.   It was exhausting, too, way more than you might think.

One of my colleagues went to Nicaragua last year to work on her Spanish, doing an intensive immersion program, living with a family, and so on.  She told me about one day when she just broke down and started crying (worrying her host "mother" greatly in the process).  She told me it made her think about when toddler's get so upset about something that seems unimportant because she was just learning a lot of stuff, working hard, being very tired, and very frustrated by not being able to express herself.  And like a toddler (according to her), she just got really upset and started crying over something that wasn't that important.

All this has nothing to do with whether it's harder to learn a language as an adult.  It may well be.  But we rarely learn languages as adults the way we did as children.  (And, for most of us, as an adult, we're learning a second language, so we know to think about things like grammar and such.  It may be much harder to learn grammar and such for a first time if you've never learned language, I suppose.)

The lecturer also talked about accents, but I think that's a bit of misdirection, since we all have accents within our native language, and learning a specific accent in a second or third language may be harder because we've learned to make certain sounds very young.  (Or so a colleague tells me: an infant begins to sort out and imitate specific sounds from that language/s they're exposed to really young.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Summer Projects

It's been a busy summer, full of projects of varying sorts.

I did some professional stuffs, and still have more to do.  But on the housing front, I got my floors done, powerwashed the deck and part of the house, and am in the midst of painting the exposed structural wood on the underside of my deck.

The floors look great (and involved moving stuff out of half of the house, and back again, with lots of trips to various places to donate clothes and such.

The deck looks WAY better than it did!  And I've fallen in love with the power washer.  (Good tools are amazing!)  (You can get a sense of how dirty it was in the top picture.)

I'm about one third done with the final coat (well, I hope I don't need a second coat of paint), and all primed (two coats) on the exposed (and very weathered wood) structural framing for the deck.  I think the color is a little different than what's on the rest of the lower part of the house, but it should be okay.

I have two more projects (both professional) that will probably take about a week each, maybe less, and then more reading prep for teaching at the Abbey.  But so far, things are beginning to feel more ready.  I'll feel a lot better about leaving with the house in good shape for the winter.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review: Will

I watched the first couple of episodes of Will last night, thanks to my Sister-in-Law who told me it was on and where to find it.  (Because I'm slow on pop culture stuffs.)

Things I liked:
It felt like the producers/directors were trying more to catch the sense of shockingness, wildness, and "on the make-ness" of early modern London (especially from the point of view of a newcomer from a smaller community, Shakespeare), rather than being "accurate" in terms of music, costuming, and so forth.  It was like watching a really good modern production of Shakespeare that's trying to do the same sort of thing.  (It's sort of like making some things feel familiar rather than emphasizing the estrangement of the past.)
Cast diversity.  (First, England in the early modern period was more diverse than popularly thought, and second, give those actors a job!)
Music.  (I laughed at "London Calling"; I liked that it wasn't all Purcell and lutes.)
Staging the Theatre.  (That dance scene early on with Will Kemp: chaos.  Fun.  You definitely get a sense that the audience had a lot of power and was active in the theatre.  I found putting women in the background/offstage at the Theatre interesting, but I'm not sure I buy it.)
Edward III.  (They gave it to Shakespeare, which was interesting.)

Things I didn't like:
Torture.  (I just can't watch torture.  Or won't.  Showing torture in explicit ways seems really popular on TV in the past couple of years, and probably contributes to me watching less TV.)
Shakespeare's Catholic.  (Maybe.  No one really knows.  It gives them lots of tension.  I usually don't get that much sense when I read early modern lit and such that most people were really focused on anti-Catholicism in the 1590s because Mary Stuart was dead and the Armada defeated.)  (I bet they read Stephen Greenblatt, eh?)
Chronology?  (Shakespeare's first plays get performed in the early 1590s, but they've killed off James Burbage via torture, though he didn't die until 1597.  I don't know how he died, but it seems like they missed opportunities to do more with Burbage.)

If this becomes a "thing," then we can expect our students to declare with confidence that Shakespeare was Catholic and so forth.  Worse things have happened.  (At least it doesn't show Oxford or Bacon writing the plays, right?)

I'm probably not going to watch more because I really dislike torture.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Rules of Three

You've heard about these, no?  The idea is you prioritize three things, and that's it.  You make a big list:

3 big goals
3 things for the year
3 things for the month
3 things for the week
3 things for the day

Or whatever.

I have my doubts.  Maybe I'm totally wrong.  No doubt I will never be a great Shakespearean, biker, birder, or violinist.  (See, four things!  And not even the most important.)

Or the people who do this successfully have someone else in there life who handles all the other things?

Let's imagine, here's my lists.

Big goals: being a kind and responsible person, professional success, adventure

3 things for the year: teaching at the Abbey, publish an article, [not public]

3 things for the month: study Victorian lit, prep courses for the Abbey, [not public]

3 things for the week: read Mill on the Floss, study Victorian lit, [not public]

3 things for the day: read Mill on the Floss (pages), power-wash deck (part), practice

But here's the problems.  First, the being kind and responsible seems huge, and important, but not something that you say for a month, well, this is the thing I'll do to be kind and responsible.  Instead, being kind and responsible probably means I need to say "yes" when a friend needs help (moving, for example).

There's a shadow list, too.  Here's the real list, with the shadow list in bold:

3 things for the year: teaching at the Abbey, publish an article, [not public], violin (vibrato, Book 4), time with friends, adventure (birding, etc), prep/teach new senior seminar in spring

3 things for the month: study Victorian lit, prep courses for the Abbey, [not public], pass Book 3 test on violin, [not public], garden, bike, kayak (ie. be outside!), eat meals, do laundry, spend time with friends, help friend move, work on paper

3 things for the week: read Mill on the Floss, study Victorian lit, [not public], practice Book 3 stuff a lot (solidify memorization of 3 pieces), [not public], power-wash deck and north side of house, take down wild grape vines off trees in the back of the yard 

3 things for the day: read Mill on the Floss (pages), power-wash deck (part), practice, eat, do laundry, garden stuff, grocery shopping.

I'm probably forgetting some things.  But you see the difficulty.  One of the [not public] things is something that's important to a friend.  It's important to me because of my friend.  It will take some serious time.  But it doesn't achieve the sorts of things most people who use these three priorities put on their lists, I don't think.  (And it does contribute to the overall being kind and responsible.)

Laundry, for example.  It doesn't take lots of time, but it's necessary to keep from being dirty and really stinky, so for basic social function.  Someone has to do it, no?  And that someone is me.

Grocery shopping takes more time, but again, unless I'm going to call for take out pizza every day (not much else is delivered around here, I don't think), I need to go shopping.

I've spent a ton of time this month practicing the violin, trying to pass my Book 3 test before Strings leaves town for a month, since I'll be gone before she returns.  When I go, I'll be away from the violin for at least 10 days, maybe more.  I'm worried that if I don't pass the Book 3 test (which involves playing three pieces from memory to my teacher's approval given my level), then the time away will mean I have to rememorize the pieces again.  (I should have access to a violin at the Abbey or help finding a student violin to rent.  And then Strings has offered to teach me via skype if we can work out the timing.)

I think I've accepted that I'm too scattered to be really successful in some peoples' terms of success.  I'll never be a famous/great Shakespearean, never be a pro-biker, never be a really good birder.

Do people really use the rule of threes in a happy and serious way?

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I've been booking a birding trip, theater tickets, train tickets, hotels, and even a symphony ticket.

So far, everything looks good.

I've had a couple of glitches.  My cell phone set up can't call internationally.  But the birding place was kind enough to call me, and then again (after I called my bank to tell them that I did, indeed, want to give money to a Scottish birding company), and voila, I am booked for a week of guided birding (with a group) in Scotland and out to the Hebrides!

I tried to book tickets for the RSC at the Barbican, but got rejected.  And the same for the London Symphony.  So I used the email about the rejections (with my code number), and explained that I couldn't call them.  (I also called my bank to make sure they weren't doing the rejecting.)  And a few minutes ago, someone from the Barbican just called me and we got it sorted out.  (At least, I hope it was someone from the Barbican, because I gave them the credit card information...)

My brother (I'm on his family phone plan) is arranging for my phone to do international stuffs while I'm there!

So far, I'm booked to see two shows at the Shakespeare's Globe (I got seats this time, having stood before), 2 shows at the RSC in London, 1 show at RSC Stratford, and a performance of the London Symphony Orchestra!

I'm spending two days in Inverness between the birding trip and when I need to be at the Abbey.

What else should I book now?

In other booking news, I've almost completely reconstituted my house; yesterday, I put books in place.  Mostly.  Still two more boxes of stuff to unpack, and lots more to put away again.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Failure and Resilience

These are the code words these days.  You've probably read the recent article by Jessica Bennet in the New York Times, about an initiative at Smith to help students deal with failure.  It's an interesting article, with discussion of not only Smith's initiative, but several other schools' work in the same area.

The basic idea is that the students at these schools have never really experienced failure, and then when they get into college and don't do as well at something (they're talking B-land grades and such as failure), the students have difficulty dealing with it.  First recognized, according to the article, at Stanford and Harvard as "failure deprived," these students basically haven't fallen down and picked themselves up enough to shrug off the next fall.

The article talks about programs at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, U of Pennsylvania, U of Texas-Austin, UCLA, and Davidson College, all of which encourage students to try things and be willing to fail at them.

I gather from Meansomething (in a facebook conversation, mostly) that there's so much pressure and competition to get into the right college that High School students are being taught to focus primarily on what they're good at, and not to try as much new stuff that they're not already good at.  That way, they get to show how wonderful they are on transcripts and stuff, and don't have to risk having that poor grade in [subject they aren't already good at] to hold them back.

I guess I have a couple issues with the idea.

First and foremost: The schools listed above pretty much are all way elite.

NWU isn't elite.  But I've had relatively few students in my time at NWU who have emotional difficulty when they fail.  Usually, they mess up on something, get a little upset, and either work harder, figure out how to do better, or get over it and mess up some more.  If the colleges told their admissions offices that they want students who've demonstrated an ability to fail and deal productively with that failure, they'd get a different population of students, probably including some like my own.  Those schools can change their perceived problem if they decide they're willing to risk admitting students who've demonstrated failure and resilience.

In fact, I'm guessing their really exciting students have already experienced lots of failure and recovery.

Which brings me to my second point: if you're doing anything difficult and working to your capacity at it, you're failing a fair bit.  That goes for athletes, musicians, scientists, humanists, everyone.

I bet every single day, Yo-Yo Ma fails at something in his cello practice/playing.  His failure's probably pretty much at the level of not playing quite as he wants a given piece, or missing a fingering slightly, or whatever.  But he's a darned good cellist, and yet working at his level, challenging himself, he probably fails a lot.  And then he practices more, and in performance, most of us wouldn't hear the slight imperfection that he knows is there at some point or other.

The same goes for athletes.  How many incompletions did Joe Montana throw.  A lot.  But he also threw some amazing, beautiful passes.

A high school musician who's really doing their thing is failing a lot, and then practicing some more, and dealing with it.  The same with an athlete.

But if all the science students are doing is cook book science, following recipes in the chem lab and getting an A for following directions well, then they aren't really doing science, and they aren't really working at a high enough level.  Of course, there's a point at which chem students have to learn basic stuff without being in danger of blowing up their schools.  But somehow, they aren't doing in their field what the musician or athlete is doing in theirs; they aren't figuring out what's been done before, a bazillion times, on just some level for themselves.

The musician playing a C major scale isn't doing something new.  And they should have guidance.  And yet, they're doing something cognitively different than following a chem class recipe book, no?

That Girl Scout who plans a camping trip, even with adult guidance, is doing the cognitive work, and may fail on some level, in fact, probably will.  And hopefully, she'll learn from that failure.

I'm guessing the really exciting students at Stanford or wherever, are the ones who've done something like music, athletics, scouting, started a business or community project, failed, and figured out how to go on again.

And I'm guessing the ones who are less resilient, less able to deal with failure, are the ones who've done really good work at cook book chemistry (or whatever).  They've followed directions really well, and worked hard to do things just right.  And they did things just right.

So how do high schools teach students to fail?  Or would it be enough for colleges to look for signs of successful failures when they're admitting students?

I'm not picking on chemistry, but it seems to me, from my own experience, that beyond learning basic lab safety and procedures, I didn't do much chemistry in my chemistry labs, not in two years in high school, not in several years in college.  And I don't know if there's a way that could be done differently, since there's so much pressure to teach large numbers of students in lab classes.  But somehow, in biology, we did little actual experiments, often trying to grow some plant with this or that different condition, and sometimes, they failed.

Can students productively fail assignments/exercises in my courses?  There's certainly lots of room for students to fail at their research projects on some level and still get an A on the project for failing well.  (When they really try to learn something and run into a brick wall, and learn something else, for example.)  But other work?

What about you?  Did you fail and learn from it early?  Or no?

Do you teach students how to fail?


Learning violin is taking me to whole new levels of failure these days.  But Strings says that she's never satisfied with her performance at a concert, even though other folks don't even realize she's made a mistake or something.  She just has expectations about the level of playing she wants, and doesn't (she says) ever quite get there fully.

The good news is that I'm improving on violin by failing and working through difficulties.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Progress: Floors and Summer Projects

As of last night, the floors are laid, sanded, and stained.  At this moment, the floor folks are putting on the second coat of finish.  Then it dries for the weekend, and on Monday, they'll come put up baseboards and such.  It looks every bit as good as I hoped!

In other progress, here's what I had to do, with the done parts stricken out.

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I've made MOST of my reservations for the UK. 
Hotels for August before birding and December (for the British Library)
Between Birding and Starting << suggestions?  I'll be in Scotland for birding, near Cairngorms National Park.  Should I go to Glasgow?  Inverness?  (I've been to Edinburgh, and while it's wonderful, I'd like to see something new.)

In the violin world, at my last lesson, my teacher agreed that I'm ready to start memorizing and working towards my Book 3 test.

So, lot's to do this weekend, and then in the coming week, I get to move back into the rest of my house!

Thursday, June 08, 2017


The wood has arrived!  This is a lot of red oak, and from the great North Woods, I'm told.

(My sliding glass door is super dirty, but it seems silly to clean it before it gets exposed to all the more dust.)  

I submitted my syllabi for the courses at the Abbey today.

I still have some paperwork to submit (emergency info, for example), and have to have a physical so a doctor can fill out a form (because they won't fill out a form if you haven't been in within the year, seems).

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I think it's time to stop, drop by campus to pick up a book (because parking anywhere near my building during working hours during the week is impossible this next month) so I can work on the third hurry up project.

Then time to practice.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Emptying the BardiacShack

As I've posted before, I'm getting new hardwood floors in part of the BardiacShack.  That means I have to empty out about half of the main floor, and put everything either in the basement or in the areas that are tiled.

This is the empty living room (the last picture was taken at night to avoid some of the window glare from afternoon sun).  I'm thinking next year, I may paint a new color...  (taking suggestions, please!) (The floor folks are going to move the heaviest of the furniture, which includes empty bookshelves.)

Here's a view of my home office.  I'm the only academic I know who actually has plenty of bookshelf space at home.  (There's a case behind the door on the right, and additional cases in the master bedroom, a bedroom downstairs, and the great room.)

This last is my red room, which is where a lot of stuff is piled.  There's also more in the dining area.  And in the basement.  (I put plastic over the windows in the red room during winter, and haven't taken them off yet...)

Editing to add a few more empty house photos:

The Hive Mind is Magic

I've put out several calls for suggestions on facebook recently, and it's amazing how helpful the hivemind is, and how much people know and are willing to share knowledge.

I've found a hotel that looks good for when I want to work at the British Library.

I've found texts.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Things are Getting Real

I've gotten some of the official paperwork to go teach at the Abbey!

So that's feeling more real.  I've started working on syllabus stuff, and book orders, and now have to do more, and fill out official forms and such.

Before there was any hint of going to the UK, I'd arranged to have carpet taken out of half of the main floor of the BardiacShack (tm) and hardwood floors put in.  (The other half is tile.)  We've firmed up a date, and it's coming soon.

I started packing up that half of the house last week.  One day, a friend came and we had a good time packing my office (many books).  It's so much more fun with a friend.  I still have some to do, but it's within easy reach now.  But the house looks increasingly strange, with empty walls (because art needs to come down to avoid dust and such), and empty rooms.

The floor folks are going to move the few big furniture pieces, but smaller ones I've moved or will move ahead with a little help from my friends.

I'm working on a new violin piece.  It's beautiful, a Bach piece, but pretty darned difficult.

On the other hand, I started going back through my early Suzuki books (#1 so far) and it's surprising how easy those pieces are now.  They were really hard when I started working on them, not so very long ago.  So that gives me hope.  (Regular Suzuki kids are expected to practice their older pieces at least once a week, but I don't do that.  On the other hand, I also work through the easier parts of new pieces in practice sessions because I can read music and, well, because I do.  So I don't have everything by memory the way regular Suzuki kids do forever.  But I'm learning in a way that's not frustrating to me.  Early on, I asked my teacher if it was okay to work on the piece just ahead if I felt like the current piece was going well, and she was fine with it, so I did, so now she gets me started on the hard parts, and I work on the easy parts, too, and then she helps me with those in lessons, and I work on making them better.)

One of my musician friends plays violin as a second instrument, so we're talking about working on a duet.  But it's way harder than I can do now, and Strings suggested to hold off starting on it (it's the last piece in the next book) so that I don't teach myself bad habits.  That makes sense.  She thinks it will be a year or two before I'm ready for it.  (And thinking how much I've learned this past year, that gives me some sense of how far beyond me this piece really is right now.)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

There's That...

I participated in my first recital today, playing a short piece (Dvorak's Humoresque), one of 5 of my teachers students to play.

The world didn't end.  I didn't lose my job.  And I didn't vomit in front of everyone (or at all, even).

Other than that... well, I'm really disappointed in how poorly I played.  I've been playing it pretty well, but today, in front of people, I just didn't.  At least I didn't completely fall apart when I made mistakes.  I suppose there's that.

Everyone was nice, of course.

But I'm pretty disappointed.  Gah.

I guess that's part of learning.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Scholarly Editions

When the semester ends, I always seem to sleep for a week.  This year, the weekend seems to have sufficed.  It probably helps that it's been too rainy to do much out of doors, so I've read, slept, and packed.

I'm having hardwood floors put in the main floor of my house, the BardiacShack, replacing the carpet that was put in when it was built.  Let's just say the carpet has seen better days.

But it means that I basically have to move everything out of half the house, including the half with my bedroom, living room, and home office.  So that means clothes and books.  Holy cow, I have a lot of books!

I'm probably the only person in academics who has more shelving than I need, thanks to inheriting three big barrister cases when my Dad died, after having bought sufficient shelving before.  And having a regular office where I have most of my books.  It's rather nice!  (But the big shelves all need to be moved!)

I took three boxes of books to the local library to donate to their sale; I hope they can sell them.  I'm sending some scholarly editions to a grad student I know.

It's weird, these scholarly editions, mostly from the Renaissance Text or Medieval and Renaissance Text Societies.  They're incredible, and beautiful.  But they're not something I use a lot.  A few of them I do.  I use a George Herbert facsimile edition about once every other year, when I teach poetry.  And there are a few other editions I use, or just plain like.

They're one of those things that you really want your library to own (if you're at an R1 and have grad students), because the occasional grad student will find them useful, but unless the specific edition hits your needs, you probably don't need them.  But I didn't really get that when I joined the organization.  And I'm not sorry I joined, because I found various sorts of editions like this so useful when I was a grad student.

But in a way, EEBO and other on-line resources have solved immediate access problems for many people, though the editorial apparatus that makes these editions especially helpful at times isn't there.  For medievalists, EEBO is no help at all, so maybe the editions are still really useful?

I'm guessing there was about a hundred years where these editions were absolutely invaluable.  And now, maybe less so?

Do you folks find yourselves using scholarly editions of less well-known texts?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Requesting a Search

The Powers That Be around here let our department chair and personnel chair know last week that they'd be letting every unit put in a request to search for a new TT position in the fall.  These decisions need to be made earlier rather than later for a number of reasons.  The big one is that if we decide in summer, then the committee can be basically set up and write up a job description early.  That way the ad goes out, and we can request materials early.  And we can do phone interviews early.  And then we can invite candidates to campus at the end of spring semester.  Otherwise, since we don't start back until the end of January, it's February before we have campus visits, and then we're late trying to make offers and such (and paperwork here takes forever).  Then, as sometimes happens, our first choice candidates already have offers we can't compete with, and on down the line.

So we met to discuss the issue.  (And here, let me explain that all meetings of State agencies are completely open to the public unless we invoke a specific state law, and we didn't invoke that at this meeting because it wouldn't have been appropriate.  So you all could have come and sat in this meeting, and even asked to speak.  Which is all to say, I'm not violating any confidentiality stuff here.)

Our chair prepared some numbers about enrollments, and so forth, which pretty seriously demonstrated that in three of our core areas for student majors, and for our first year writing courses, we're having serious difficulty covering our courses.  (In a given semester, most TT faculty teach one first year writing course with 5 meeting hours per week, and two other courses.)

One of the suggestions is that we hire someone in comp/rhet in hopes this person would solve some of the difficulty of first year writing courses.  Basically, they're thinking this person would come in and have a steady, long term diet of first year writing courses, all year, all the time.  And upper level comp/rhet type courses are already well covered; it's one of only two areas that could add a number of students to each section at the upper level.  So we really don't need someone more to teach upper level courses.

That seems to me like a recipe for a really unhappy colleague.  I just haven't met anyone who's done a PhD in comp/rhet who really wants a full time first year comp load.  Maybe they're out there...  And it seems like that load would also really be hard on a research agenda (unless they were totally doing SOTL work on first year writing class stuffs).  (The response to my concern about this was that the person could also teach some lit, and yes, but then it doesn't solve the first year writing coverage, and it adds people in a likely area where we already have plenty of coverage, pop culture.)

We also discussed areas A and B, including the possibility that we try to find someone who does both A and B.  The A folks rejected that, since anyone who does both probably likes B better and isn't wholeheartedly A.  (And we have some folks who could do some A along with their B, but the A folks always, always refuse to let them.)

The A folks made an impassioned argument for a specialized position within A because they want someone who looks different, but not someone who looks TOO different (as in, too B).

The B folks made an equally impassioned argument for a specialized position within B in case our current person there goes off to be a deanling, which they really want to do and which seems likely.

I suggested a different specialization within B that could also reasonably offer serious help to area C.  That didn't go far.  But I conceded that the other area was probably more important to us.

And so, with much discussion, we came to a consensus which makes me very glad to be part of a department where folks can make an impassioned argument for something and yet be convinced that at this point, something else should probably have priority.

And so we'll put forward our recommendation.

And in all likelihood, since we searched this past year, the few searches there are will go to other departments and programs.

We have some 15 people there for an hour and a half.  That's half a week of work, and probably for nothing, really.  (And more work in the prep the chair and chair of the meeting did.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hit the Ground Running

And we're back!  At least I'm back.  From Kalamazoo, where I met Dame Eleanor to say hi, and also other medievalists. 

I felt good about my paper, and heard some stellar work.  I learned to play a game, and am trying to think how I might make that work in my own courses.

But I barely slept.  Blanketgate. 

Just so we all remember: at some point a short while before the conference, word got out that people staying in the dorms wouldn't be provided with blankets, but would need to either bring their own, go without, or buy one.  Some smart folks figured out how to arrange so that the bought blankets could be donated for one or more shelters for people more needy than most medievalists, and also worked to fund some blankets for more needy medievalists (especially grad students).

I bought a blanket.  It was an okay blanket, but nothing to blog home about, mostly because it was too short.  I'm about 5'5", and I had a choice of either shoulders or feet for coverage.  Fortunately, it wasn't super cold.  (And in case it had been, I had long johns and sleeping socks packed.)

Most important, I reconnected with a friend and had several lovely long talks with her.

But now, holy cow, back trying to catch up on all the stuff I put off.  I have papers to grade by Wednesday morning (so I can give them back at the final).  I had a final to write, but it's now written.

My home is a mess, my office is a mess, my life is chaos, and I haven't practiced the violin since before Kalamazoo.  (This afternoon, I promise myself.)

I need to figure out all sorts of things before summer really starts, but can't do some of those until official paperwork happens, and we all know how paperwork getting done sometimes is.

And the Giro d'Italia is on, and Nairo Quintana is in the lead!  (It's a rest day today, the second during the three week race.)  Tomorrow is a time trial, which I don't find much fun to watch, alas, and which may also spell the end of Quintana's time in pink for now.  (Since the Tour de France is more familiar, folks may be more familiar with the yellow jersey worn by the general classification leader of the Tour.  The general classification is the total time to finish the race.  For the Giro, the general classification leader wears a pink jersey.)  There's also a cyclamen/purple jersey for the points leader, which is basically a jersey for sprinters, currently held by Fernando Gaviria; a blue jersey for the leader of the mountain competition, currently held by Jan Polanc; and the white jersey for riders under 25.  (There are other competitions, but only four result in distinct jerseys.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

At the 'Zoo!

I'm in Kalamazoo, pretending to be a bit of a medievalist.

And, I got really good news today.  Back in 2011, I did a semester of teaching abroad at a place I called the Abbey; well the person in my department who was scheduled to go there in the fall doesn't want to go, for a very reasonable reason.  So my chair reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to go.  But, you'll remember, I'm scheduled for a sabbatical this coming year.

Well, it all worked out.  I'll go to the Abbey this fall, teach at NWU as usual in spring, and then the next year, will take my full year deferred sabbatical!  Things couldn't be better for that!

Except... I'll be teaching a course in Victorian Literature.  Uh huh.  I mean, I can pretend to be a medievalist, sure, but a Victorianist?  Fortunately, one of my colleagues offered to help me put together the course and prep for it.

I'm thrilled!

And now, back to pretending to be a medievalist!

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Thoughts on Not Hiring Local Adjuncts

I've been involved in a couple searches recently, from a variety of angles.  For each of them, some NWU adjuncts* applied.  And none of them were hired.  And now a couple are really angry. 

I know some adjuncts ask how it is that we're willing to keep them as adjuncts, but not hire them as tenure track faculty.  The answer is that there's much more competition for tenure track jobs.  Someone who applies for one of our newer adjunct positions is usually fresh out of a grad program, has some conference presentations, is abd or just finished, and has a good record of grad school teaching.  They write an application letter, do a phone interview, and are hired by the chair.  The job description says nothing about scholarly activity, so that's not something the chair can ask about.

In contrast, the folks who stood out in our tenure track searches generally had a publication or two, conference presentations, a good record of grad school teaching, good references, and what made them stand out to get the interview were stellar letters of application.  What makes the letters stellar always includes addressing the things we put in our job description, and says meaningful things about those.

From the stellar letters, we looked at CVs, and letters of recommendation, and then writing samples to narrow down the pool further.  We care about scholarly activity and teaching.  But no one got an interview that I know of unless they had a stellar letter.

What makes a stellar letter?

One of the candidates who isn't mad and I talked for a good while about their letter.  They sent me a letter of application for a different job, and a job description for that job.  So I used different colored highlighters to highlight the things the job description said were important, and prioritized those.  And then I used the same colors to highlight in the candidate's letter where they addressed those things.  That made the lack of addressing the job description really visible.

For example, this job description said it valued candidates who could contribute to diversity.  On first glance, a white candidate might think that means only a candidate who's a person of color.  But what it means is that everyone needs to learn about diversity, and especially about working well with diverse students and colleagues, and about contributing to diversity efforts on campus.  So, for example, this adjunct mentioned in their letter that they worked with a diverse student body.  And that was it.  But in reality, when I asked the candidate, they'd made at least some effort to learn about effective teaching for a diverse student body.  But they hadn't talked about it in their letter and it didn't show on the CV, so how was the search committee to know?

I did suggest to the candidate that they could do more, start a reading group for the adjuncts across campus, maybe, to take on some leadership in contributing to diversity.

The thing is, unless a letter tells the search committee that you actually can contribute in the required and valued areas of the description, the search committee won't know.  And they don't have time to go look you up on the web to learn more because someone else's letter did tell them that information, and made it sound meaningful and committed.

So, let's hear: why do your schools hire or not hire adjuncts?

*When I use "adjuncts" in this post, I mean any teaching staff who aren't on a tenure-track contract.  These may be full time or part time, and may have a variety of different names, even on one campus.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Two Good Things!

We had a big poetry reading last night, the main rule of which was that the poem/passage not be in Modern English.

So, I read a passage, and had a prop, and I got a big laugh reading about a beheading.  I also had audience participation (thwack, thud, splat, and ewww were the audience participation parts).

It seems wrong to get a big laugh about a beheading, but it was the prop.  (I balled up a green jacket, put a hat on it, taped on two blue circles for eyes, and used red ribbon for blood, and had a colleague roll it out at the appropriate moment.)

I've gotten several congratulatory comments today about the reading.  So, that's good.


I have a review coming up next year, a big one for me, but I'm on sabbatical, so I arranged with a colleague to do a class visit this semester, so that there's a fresh report available.  Today was the only day that really worked in the past couple of weeks.

My colleague came to my seminar class, where we did final revision work on their seminar papers.  It can't have been especially exciting, but it was good.  First, every single student was really engaged in working on their papers.  And they had useful, good questions that showed their engagement.  And, at the end, most every student said the session had been really useful to them.

We basically worked through the sorts of things one should work through to fine tune an essay: thesis, intro, topic sentences, organization, checked citations, definitions, and so forth.  The thing is, most students are busy and won't make themselves double check this stuff (because they think they've already checked it by writing the paper), but it's really useful to do.

My colleague had a great suggestion to make it even better, and was overall very complimentary about the session.  I was a little nervous in that way one is sometimes, so I'm glad and relieved it went well.

It's one of the things I really wanted to take care of this semester for fall.  Check.


Just over one week of classes left!  I have a bad case of spring fever and sabbaticalitus, but I'm done with grading until next week, at least.  I do have to work on my Kalamazoo paper a lot more, but that's do-able, I think.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Home Stretch

We have two more weeks of classes, then finals, and then, yes, it's spring.  For real.

I had a great time at Birding School, and learned a LOT, which was wonderful.  Such fun!

In the meanwhile, I have to finish grading a stack to hand back later today, prep for peer revision stuff in my senior seminar today, prep to teach Persepolis, and yes, work on my Kalamazoo paper.  (I'm guessing Kalamazoo is really convenient for folks who are finishing up right now; they have a week or two without classes to work on papers, then a weekend trip, and then summer begins for real for them.  Not quite so convenient for me, alas.  But I'm looking forward to it.)

I had my seminar students turn in drafts in the discussion area (in groups) on Sunday.  Two were late (they turned it in after midnight when it was due at 5 or 6pm), but everyone turned one in.

One of the late students wrote on their turn in note that they don't usually do drafts, just write and turn things in.  What they turned in was 6 pages (the assignment is 12-15).  So I'm hoping that they'll get some good, critical feedback and take revision more seriously than usual.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bird School!

Some months ago now, in that fantasy time when spring seems like it will be reasonable, I signed up for bird school at a local nature reserve.  And today's the day!

But holy cow, what a time to have it!  Of course, for migration and such, it's perfect.  But for the academic schedule, not so perfect.  Or not at all perfect.

Still, I did the homework, and read up on anatomy and physiology stuffs, and prepared a handout for my group.  And I've found set my camera battery to recharge today.  And I've got stuff ready!

I should be grading, but I'm going to go learn about birds, starting this evening, and then early Saturday and Sunday mornings, all day Saturday, and Sunday through noon.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Teaching Peer Revision

This coming week, my senior seminar students will turn in their essay drafts (to our course management system, in the discussion area, where they're grouped into small groups), and then the next class session, they'll do peer revision.

So, taking Earnest English's suggestion, we spent a little time today reflecting on (in writing) and then talking about what made peer revision effective for them, and what made it ineffective.

My students suggested that really reading the draft carefully was vital.  yes.

Another suggested that they worry less about hurting feelings and more about giving real, honest criticism and feedback.  yes.

Another suggested that they give feedback in terms of questions, rather than directions.  (So more, a "I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, can you explain it in different words?" than a "do this" sort of response.)  yes.

And one suggested that real, full drafts were much better to work with as revisers.  YES!

And we talked about problems, which mostly came down to people not reading carefully, or focusing on grammar rather than bigger picture stuffs.

I've asked them to give their peers one or two things to think about when they submit their drafts, so that they'll get the most helpful response possible. 

What do you do to help your students have a better peer revision experience?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Several Things

I was looking at the CVs of applicants for a deanling position here, and one of the CVs lists a book out from Scholar's Press.  So I looked at some on-line booksellers, and didn't see it.  So then I thought, hmm, that's odd, and googled the press, which basically looks sort of like an academic vanity sort of thing?  It accepts manuscripts, and prepares to print them out and bind them "on demand," pretty much.

Is that your folks' impression?

What does it mean that a deanling candidate has listed this on their CV?

Does the fact that this person is a finalist for the position mean that the search committee doesn't realize about the press?


I'm working on a conference paper along with my seminar students.  They're required to do an abstract and annotated bibliography.  I really don't want to do the annotated bibliography, but I really should.  Ugh.

The upside is if I get this done, then I'll have a much better conference paper than otherwise.

Do you folks ever write alongside your students (as in, visibly to them)?


One of the things we'll do with this is peer revision.  In my experience, my upper level students do a much better job with peer revision than lower level students do.  This is especially true when there are creative writing students in the mix, and English Ed students, because they get a lot of practice in responding to and critiquing peers' works.  My sense would be that lots of practice helps people learn to be better peer responders.  But we lit folks don't tend to have students do as much peer response as other folks.

In the Grade Information thread, Doc said that he basically found that peer revision didn't work well with upper level students.

What's your experience with using peer revision for upper level students?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Being Ungraded

As regular readers know, in February 2016, I started violin lessons.  One of the cool byproducts is that it's got me thinking about being a learner in a big way again, because I'm not just learning little extra stuff here and there from reading, but I'm learning whole new skills and vocabulary and concepts. 

In light of our recent discussion about grade information, I was thinking about being ungraded in violin. 

At one point, I did ask Strings, my teacher, if I were progressing okay.  I worried about it when I started.  But once she reassured me when I asked, I really haven't worried about it.  I think two things have happened.  One is that she reassured me.  And the other is that I'm pretty much at the limits of useful challenge in my violin playing, so it really doesn't matter if someone else progresses faster or not, because the only way I'm going to progress faster is to add a whole lot more time to my practice sessions, and I accept that I'm probably not doing that.

In private lessons, it doesn't matter how fast I progress.  I'm not holding anyone back, or being frustrated by someone else not keeping up.  And that's very, very different from being in a larger class.  Of course, in a large enough class, I wouldn't be aware of how others were doing, mostly, whether they were more or less lost in the material than I was.* 

At this point, I can pretty much tell how I'm progressing because when I'm playing my current piece well enough, Strings starts me on the next one.  And if I'm not playing it well enough, she helps me figure out my difficulties and helps me with strategies to work through them.

In my last lesson, for example, I was having difficulty with some areas of the Becker Gavotte.  So she had me trying playing a couple section without fingering, just playing the open strings.  (It's weird to do that, too.)  In another spot, she showed me how to use one finger that was already down to place a finger on a different string, but nearby.  And in another spot, she helped me realize that I had to lift my third finger quickly to be ready to put it down somewhere else after a different note.  And so on.

Even though I hadn't practiced as much as I might have in the preceding period (I skipped a lesson for SAA and didn't practice while traveling), she was able to find really specific ways to help me, all while being encouraging.

And this week, I'm back practicing the Becker.  (And technical stuff, of course.)

So how does it work without grades?  There's basically a sort of pass/fail, with opportunities to go work on doing better when I don't pass a given piece.  And encouragement. 

If I were being graded at the end of the semester, then it would probably feel different.  I'd probably ask, or want to ask, how I was doing in terms of a grade, because if you're in a system where grades matter (and they do for music majors, and for people getting financial aid, and for people who want to go to grad/professional school, and at some level, for people who want to graduate), you pretty much have to care about grades.

And there's the passing on to a new piece thing.  I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean I've earned the equivalent of an A at playing a given piece, even for my level.  I think it's more that I've demonstrated that I can play it acceptably at my level, and that the Suzuki system/teachers think I'll gain more by focusing on a new piece with new skills challenges than by continuing to focus primarily on that piece.  (With the reminder that in general, Suzuki students are expected to practice all the pieces they've learned previously with fair regularity, like once a week, for a long time.  With Strings permission, I don't do that.)

So if I were in a sort of portfolio system, how would I feel about moving on?  Me, I want to learn to play the violin, so I practice stuff that Strings doesn't check me on, scales, technique books, in hopes that those skills will help me as I progress.  But I don't keep working hard on pieces I've passed, mostly. 

What about students in a writing class?  Given that time is always tight, should a student keep working on revising a piece if they don't know the grade, just in hopes that they really need to?

There are times when I look at a paper, and it's very B land.  Minor, little things could make it B+ land, but to seriously improve it, the student would have to rethink the paper completely, pretty much.  Is it worth asking the student to take time to do that?  (My students are all pretty busy, with most working a lot of hours in addition to their courses and family responsibilities.)

*I remember when I went back to school, I was in this Shakespeare class, and just really enjoying it, but also not feeling super confident about my skills in lit.  At the beginning of the semester, I'd been in a long line on campus, and made friends with another student who also ended up in the Shakespeare class.  So we went along in class; this friend and I'd say hello and such, but didn't talk between classes about the class.  And then when the midterm came back, I was happy to feel good about my A, and totally shocked that my friend earned a D.  I was totally unaware that he wasn't getting stuff or writing well or whatever.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Grade Information?

You know how a fair number of the young folks you see on campus are looking at their phones at any given time?  What are they looking at?

I mean, I can check facebook, and my email, but all the folks I'm likely to text work (except my Mother, but she keeps plenty busy) and don't text me unless there's something up. 

So I asked my students while we were waiting for the class hour to begin.  A few mentioned texts or facebook messenger, and email.  But weirdly, several of them were looking at our on line course management system, looking for grades.  One said they'd turned in a paper the week before break, but still hadn't received a grade on it.  And that was like opening the spigot, because pretty much all of them said they were having similar experiences.

So, in a big course, papers, it can take more than two weeks (and certainly an instructor may actually have taken a break over break).  But the number of students who talked, in those few minutes, about their frustrations with not getting graded stuff back, or not getting feedback, was pretty high, and each person who came in as we were talking, quickly chimed in.

Now, let's take these with a grain of salt.  One student who complained about not getting anything back in a first year writing course acknowledged that she'd received extensive feedback on her work, just not actual grades.  It turns out she got an A in the course.  I don't know what the feedback looked like, but usually when I give feedback on an A paper, I write things about the smart ideas, good organization, strong thesis, overall high quality, and then maybe make a suggestion about how to tweak one thing to make it even stronger.  And the student said that others in the course got grades.

So, I don't know.  It seems weird that the student didn't ask the teacher, doesn't it?

On the other hand, it also seems weird not to give students feedback that includes a grade unless you're using a portfolio system, in which case your feedback includes revision suggestions and opportunities, probably.

Do you folks post grades on a course management system?  (I don't.)

How long do you think is okay to take to grade and return a short essay assignment (under, say, 5 pages)?  (I aim for one week, but sometimes take two.)

Do you give feedback without grades?  (I'm sure you have a good reason.  Please share.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The More Things Change

I ran into a colleague in the "research room" (which is what our room with a microwave, coffee maker, water pot, refrigerator, sink, and seating is labelled, it being illegal to call anything on state property a "break room" apparently), a colleague who's retiring at the end of the semester.  And, as we do when waiting for water to boil, coffee to drip, and so on, we chatted.  I asked him how he was looking forward to retirement, and he said that while he's loved his job, there are changes, some for the better, some for the worse, but the detrimental ones are bothering him more than the positive ones these days.

So we started talking about some changes.

There are structural changes which make it seem more possible to give a wider group of people opportunities to go to college, but now those changes seem to be eroding.  So, here, he said, when he first came, the students were pretty much all white, middle class.  They're still mostly white, but now not mostly middle class.  We still have a long ways to go to serve the racially diverse population around NWU, but we're doing better at serving a more economically diverse population.  (You may think of the great North Woods as a land of unmitigated whiteness, but if you look, you'll realize there's more diversity in the area than you might think.  For one thing, there are more Native Americans in the area, but we're not serving them well here at NWU.  There are also more Latin@ folks than you might think, but we're not serving them hardly at all.  And there are more refugees and immigrants, often second generation now, too. 

Technology is a mixed bag.  It's great to be able to get texts, to access them in class, to not have to use a microfilm/microfiche reader, to be able to get texts PDFed from afar, to be able to look up some factoid quickly.  On the other hand, it's frustrating when students don't buy literary (or no doubt other) texts, but try to read them on their phones.  And it's even more frustrating when students pay more attention to their phone than to the human beings in class with them.

(What are most students doing on their phones?  Playing games?  Twitter?  Snapchat or something?)

I started here pretty much in the year my colleague feels was the beginning of local structural changes hurting students, so to me, those changes are sort of normalized for me as a faculty member.  I was totally unaware of them at most of the schools where I was a student (except for the years I was at a community college and regional university; the regional university hadn't bought books for the library in years in the lit field.  When we really needed something, the advice was to go to either the big public R1 15 miles east, or the smaller private R1 30 or so miles south.  Fortunately, both would let people read in their libraries, though we couldn't borrow books, of course.)

For colleagues who've come more recently, there've been drastic recent budget issues, but we're all weirdly adjusting to them as the new normal.

What have you found changing over your career in academics (or whatever)?  More positive or negative?  Mixed?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wild Dash to the Finish

How much do you work with undergrads on research/writing strategies?  How do you do it?

It's that time of the semester when we're all dashing to the finish.  We have five more weeks here.

In my Intro to Lit course, students turn in their critical essay next week.  I held open office hours last week, before leaving for SAA, and got some students, but this week I've had bunches.  So I'm in on a non-teaching day, holding office hours, hoping to help some more. 

In my senior seminar, I've been trying to be more proactive about the seminar paper stuff.  Just after break, I took a class session and we did a bunch of freewriting and other brainstorming activities about paper ideas.  Then students turned in a basic paper idea, and I responded to that.

In our meeting before I went to SAA, I spent time talking about strategies for writing a good paper, figuring out what to say, using research, and so on.  And while I was gone, I set them to get started, with the suggestion that rereading was a good start.

They seemed to appreciate talking about strategies.  I hope they weren't just BSing.

Yesterday, we spend time talking about what they'd accomplished, where they were stuck, and tried to help each person with some suggestions.  I also told them about my Kalamazoo paper, and that I'd be working on a paper along with them.

My plan going forward is to spend some time each week talking about progress and problems, and trying to help solve the problems.

And yes, I need to work on my Kalamazoo paper, too!

Here's wishing us all good work!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Catching Up

SAA was good, once I got there.  That was a bit of an adventure.  My original flight plans had me getting to the airport at about 4:45 am (to get the check in and so on.  My local airport is so small that the same person checks people in and then goes to do the security screening.  That means if you haven't checked in before they go to do security, you pretty much can't check in.)

Anyway, I got out of the car and saw a "flight cancelled" note scotch-taped to the door, went inside, and learned that yes, the flight was cancelled.  I texted my friend (who'd risen early to give me a ride), and she texted back that she was back outside the door.

And then I waited for a bit while the airline folks rerouted me.  This route meant that I'd fly out on THE afternoon flight (two flights out and in a day here), stay overnight in Chicago, and then fly out of Chicago super early.  (The desk clerk at the Chicago hotel said I pretty much needed to be on the 3:15am shuttle to get to the airport, through security and such.  I could have made it on the 3:45 shuttle, probably, given that there were no lines at 3:30 when I got there.  But maybe there would have been lines at 4am?)

At any rate, I made it to Atlanta mid-morning, and spent the rest of the morning rereading papers for my seminar.  I went to the lunch, had a delightful conversation with a friend, but couldn't hear the speech very well (bad sound system?).  Then my seminar, which was really good and interesting, and which gave me some good ideas for revision.

Then it was evening, and I went and got an early dinner, took a bit of a walk, and was in bed by 8:15pm.  I felt so much better the next day!  I went to a morning session, went to the book exhibit, and got on the MARTA to get to the airport.

It was really frustrating to miss so many seminars and talks I'd wanted to see!  But I travelled safely, and had a good seminar, good talks with friends, so that was worthwhile.

And now I'm getting back in the swing, taking care of school stuff, trying to sort out adding office hours for my desperate students.

I don't remember being so helpless as a first year student.  Maybe I was.  But I sure didn't talk to my professors so they'd know it!  (On the other hand, it's probably actually way better that my students DO talk to me and other professors, since my strategies weren't particularly successful.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

To the Shakespeare Association Conference

I'm headed out early tomorrow for SAA, which is in Atlanta this year. 

I have mixed feelings about conferences.  On one hand, it's great to go and see Shakespeare folks, talk Shakespeare and early modern lit.

On the other hand, it reminds me how isolated I feel intellectually here, and how many resources just aren't anywhere near.

It's great to get away, especially to somewhere warmer.

But it's also a pain to make arrangements for classes to be covered, plants to be brought in/taken out, travel, and to pick up the extra expense, because NWU never quite covers everything.

At any rate, I'm heading out.  I'm not taking my computer, so I won't be posting.

Death on the Internet

For years now, I've read Steve Tilford's blog.  If you don't follow cycling, you've probably never heard of Steve Tilford, but he was the first US mountain biking champion, four times the US cyclocross champion, five times world mountain bike masters champion, twice world cyclocross masters champion, an inductee in the mountain biking hall of fame, and three times a member of the US world road team at the world championships.

He was also just a bit older than me, but still raced and road tons, and wrote wonderfully about racing and riding, and all sorts of things.

But today, I opened  Cycling News and saw this.  And then I opened his blog, and saw a post by a friend of his.  (It was a car accident, a really horrible car accident.)

I never met Steve Tilford.  (I don't even feel like I can call him by his first name, certainly not by the nickname many seem to use.  But just his surname doesn't seem right, either.)  But I'm really sad.  Reading someone's blog, following their life, learning from them, seeing pictures of their dogs, family, friends, adventures, it all makes you feel sort of like you know them.  Except you don't.  Not really.

But still, what a life the man led, and how he'll be missed by his family, friends, the whole cycling community, and his blog readers, including me.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Why an MA in English?

We had a meeting about our MA program last week; there's a new colleague directing the program, a colleague who very much wants to be a deanling and so approaches everything as an administrator.  They really wanted to present their idea, have us all nod obediently, and move forward.

Instead, people started asking questions.  And the best question asked us to think about what the MA program is trying to do.  It's a great starting point for rethinking our program.  (I've blogged before about my frustrations with our program, how weak it is, how much of a disservice I think we do for students who should be encouraged to go elsewhere.)

So the question of the day: what should an MA program try to do?  Or, to put it another way, why should someone get an MA in English?

(Note: we're a regional comprehensive with the only MA in English for 100 miles in most directions.)

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Crocus Smile, the Fourth Year

I know you've all been waiting for pictures of this year's blooming of the now famed art installation, "Crocus Smile"!!  Here it is!

And yes, an individual crocus bonus, because they're so amazingly beautiful.  Once again, let me say, the crocuses are more obvious in person.

And, this year, I've tried adding more bulbs (that I'd left in the garage over winter).  Hopefully next year's smile will be even better!

Crocus Smile, the beginnings
Crocus Smile, Year Two
Crocus Smile, Year Three

Friday, March 31, 2017

Sometimes, It Works

When I finished teaching yesterday, I felt really good.  I'd prepped the heck out of my classes, especially for the novel, and both classes went really well.

I usually feel pretty good, like I've taught say, a B+ class.  But today, I felt way better, and that's sort of rare.  But oh so good!

On the other hand, I played less well than I'd hoped at my violin lesson.  But I got a new exercise, got some encouragement and tips, and will practice to improve. 

After several weeks of practice, I'm able to get a slight variation in sound when I use the bow while doing slow vibrato.  That's a huge improvement, but it's going to take a lot more practice!


On Tuesday this week, I spent pretty much the whole session in my senior seminar doing brainstorming type work for their seminar papers.  I think it worked.  They all seem to have come up with at least basic ideas for things they want to look at.  If it helps their papers, it's time well spent.


I bought a new toy this week.  I'd been thinking about it off and on for a few years.  Over the weekend, I went birding up to this amazing pond, filled with geese, swans, ducks.  But while I could pretty much tell the Canada Geese from the others, I couldn't tell whether the smaller white geese were Ross's Geese or Snow Geese.  It's hard to tell size at a distance, and the other big field mark is beak marking, with the Snow Goose having what my Sibley's calls an "obvious black 'grin patch'" (79).  Let me say, the patch isn't at all obvious at a great distance through my binoculars, much less in my pictures (taken with a 400 mm lens).  I was so frustrated!

So I got a spotting scope.  My 400 mm camera lens basically does 8x magnification.  My binocs are 10x.  My spotting scope is 27-60x.

It's utterly amazing.

I need to get a new tripod before I can take pictures with it (there's an adaptor to fit on my camera), but when I do, it should be pretty darned exciting!  I can't wait to go look at those geese again!  (I can hold 10x binocs okay; in good light, so the shutter speed is fast, I can hand hold the camera with lens.  But it's way easier with a tripod.  But there's no way I can hand hold this huge spotting scope and actually see anything!)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Novel Teaching

I always feel a bit at odds and ends when I teach novels.  I know that's weird for those of you who teach lots of novels all the time, but I usually teach plays and verse stuff, long or short.  I'm pretty comfortable teaching The Faerie Queene or Donne's sonnets, and super happy teaching plays.  Short stories seem more straightforward to teach.

But novels!  First, they're often pretty darned BIG!

I assigned the novel for over break reading.  I hope they did it! 

So I started in today trying to introduce characters, and trying to weave bits of those characters through the whole of the text.  I'll pick up more, but I want the students to start paying close attention, and I can tell they didn't.  Of course, it's an intro to lit course, and they're in the course to learn to read better, so it's completely reasonable that they didn't read with quite the attention I did.

Still, For a couple of the characters, I traced bits through the novel (Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie): one character's a bit of a bully.  Later, we learn that he's been sexually abused as a child by a priest.  And they also cut his hair off.  Then later still, the mysterious Big Mom character tells him he has to forgive the priest. 

Students need to learn to pay close enough attention to tie these things together, to remember the sexual abuse incident when the forgiveness talk comes.

But I don't feel like I know quite how to teach students to read this way.

Or how to teach them to get at the bigger picture at the same time.  I tend to be a smaller, tight focus sort or reader, I think.  I like to work through small passages and explode them to get at the bigger issues.

How do you more expert folks teach novels?