It’s been awhile since I’ve read either the Chron or Inside Higher Ed. I have enough to do, what with reading archives of my favorite bloggers, teaching, and trying to write, or maybe those things go in reverse order. But today a blog-update link showed a headline at IHE that interested me, so I went and read the piece, and then clicked on the Advice section to read a some advice about teaching online.

Tip #1, about establishing rules for the classroom, starts with this sentence: “Many students alchemize participating in distance learning with sitting in front of an optically and audibly challenged neophyte substitute.”


Seriously, I have no idea what this sentence means. Did the writer take a comprehensible sentence and run it through one of those synonym-substituter programs?

I should have stopped reading there. The rules suggested strike me as . . . out of touch with current reality, despite the claim to respond to COVID-related teaching concerns. Repeated logging out/in can be because of network connectivity problems. Maybe the bed with a sibling’s band on the other side of the wall is the only place the student has any privacy (it’s true they could at least make the bed). The point to a chat forum is that it simulates the back-and-forth of actual conversation; that’s why people use abbreviations for frequently-used phrases.

I’ll go back to checking out people’s archives when I need a break, and continuing my abstention from higher-ed news. It’s strangely unenlightening.

Online or not?

We don’t know, of course, what we’ll be doing about classes in the fall. If we’re all online, then yes, I’m spending the summer on training to teach online and converting my classes accordingly. In the meantime, we’ve been asked to consider putting one or more of our classes online, on the theory that at least some students will prefer to take classes online, due to health, care-taking, or whatever else they have going on.

I’m trying to decide. Do it now, when I’d get brownie points for stepping up and some understanding for early-adopter glitches? Or wait and see? I already have 21 students enrolled in my 2-day-per-week undergrad course, which would be a nice number for the hybrid course I’m sort of hoping for, meeting half of them one day, the other half on the other, and having the at-home half doing online stuff or “attending” via webcam. I miss being in the classroom, and even if I have to be prepared to go online if/when there’s another outbreak, or to teach a hybrid class, I really want to spend some actual physical time with my students.

I guess that’s my answer, now that I write it out. Who among my readers is thinking out similar questions, and what are you thinking?

Appearing organized

If you want to acquire a reputation for being organized, here are my two top tips:

1. Answer e-mail promptly.*

2. Do not perform stress.**

That’s it! Go forth and appear in control.



* Answers can be “Yes, thank you for thinking of me,” “Maybe, please tell me more,” “No, I can’t do that now, but I can get to it at X time,” “No, I can’t do that, but here’s someone you could ask.” The key is to be prompt, even if you’re saying no, rather than to hide out hoping people think you’re doing something more important than checking your e-mail.

**You can be a total stress monkey in your head as long as your outward demeanor is “Everything’s fine.” I started acting like everything was fine a long time ago, when I realized that I got very stressed being around people whose outward narrative is “OMG there’s so much to do I have deadlines no time to exercise or eat properly the world is going to hell in a handbasket and I am so important only I can do this stuff OMG.” Things get done, eventually. Only once have I reached the end of the semester without all the grading being accomplished, and even then, it was okay.*** Nobody else really needs to know the number of times I have done things at the last minute, or dropped a ball or several, or faked my way through a meeting or a class (I read fast, and there’s always think-pair-share exercises plus “That’s an interesting observation, do tell us more”). I’m more effective when I exercise, eat good food, try to get a reasonable amount of rest, and don’t try to run on caffeine and sugar.

***That was the semester when I had to spend two weeks with my parents when my father had emergency surgery and my mother was suffering from Parkinson’s-related dementia. I kept everybody informed, filled out manual change-of-grade forms, and the world kept turning. Sir John and some trusted friends got an earful, but nobody at work needed to know the details of how completely awful those weeks were.

Holy Innocents

If you like colo(u)ring books, here’s a link for you:

I hope you have time to indulge before you go back to work.

Today is the 9th day in a row I have worked on the article I’m trying to finish before the New Year. I feel like it was written by someone else, and I’m trying to re-make it in my own voice, as the scholar I am now, not the person I was when I first put the essay together, certainly not the person I was when I wrote the conference papers it was based on.

I am never again going to write a conference paper. I will write articles, and boil them down into conference papers if I want to go to the conference, but building longer pieces out of short ones just does not work for me. If it works for you, carry on, but if you’re like me, or suspect you might be, consider this permission to stop doing what isn’t working (even though it’s standard advice).

That said, I still have a couple of papers from last summer that I wanted to write, ideas that may be part of The Putative Book, and may be spin-offs. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Family visit

Sometime he angers me
with telling me . . .
such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff
as puts me from my faith. I tell you what:
he held me last night at least nine hours . . .
I cried “hum,” and “well, go to,”
but mark’d him not a word.

Advice from William Shakespeare, I Henry IV III.i

How we spend our lives

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.”

— From “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard

Teaching Statement

Bottom line: people like to make their own mistakes.

Academics probably know what I mean by my title phrase, but I’ll explain it for others: at intervals (applying for jobs, for tenure, for promotion), we have to write about our approaches to, and beliefs about, teaching. For external audiences, it’s useful to hit some buzz-phrases: student-centered, meeting students where they are, scaffolding assignments, bringing research into the classroom. (I have no objection to any of these ideas; depending on what and where you teach, they are all some combination of reasonable/ desirable / necessary. As Jonathan said awhile back, clichés are idiomatic and easily understood, and when writing for administrators, you want to make sure that they know you know what the currently important ideas and techniques are.)

I like teaching. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a significant part of my identity. Or rather, being a professor is significant. I enjoy talking with students about literature, and providing them with techniques for analyzing literature, so that they learn how to see what a writer is doing besides just stringing words together, so that they learn that discussion and writing for literature classes isn’t just a lot of hand-wavy bullshit. As I am a decent literary critic, so also I am a decent critic of other teachers. I don’t mean that I offer everyone feedback, but that I note in my head what people are doing well or ill. Yesterday I was at a dance workshop with a teacher who was an excellent dancer but lousy at conveying in words what he wanted people to do. His main technique was demonstration. I could tell he thought in patterns and movement, but had trouble translating that to language. For me, he was not a good teacher, because that is not how I think.

I have no ambitions to be a dance teacher, or to give instruction in any field other than the one I’m paid for. Sometimes I consider, as a retirement job, teaching English as a foreign language, or tutoring children in math. Such jobs would use the skills I have developed over the course of my professional career, rather than requiring me to pick up new skills. They would give me a place to go, people to talk to, when I am no longer at LRU. But I don’t feel that I need to teach, or that I have any special knowledge or wisdom to pass on. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of people who could teach the topics I do, and many of them would no doubt do it better. I tend to think up-side down, to start at the deep end and work back to the first principles, and most students want to start at the simple end and only gradually complicate matters.

As my grandfather got older, he became more and more taciturn. He figured younger people didn’t want to hear an old man bore on about how things used to be. He did, in fact, have a lot of useful specialized knowledge, some of which he may have passed on to my brothers, about working with wood and metal, about growing food and fixing things. None of this came to me, a girl; if he had any expectations here, it would have been that my grandmother would teach me to sew, knit, tat, embroider. That didn’t happen either. What did get passed on is his taciturnity, his tendency to talk only when asked a question. I consider the classroom a question: when I’m there, I’ll lecture or direct discussion, as necessary. Otherwise, I don’t think I have anything special to convey to anyone. My life lessons are just that: mine, for me. Things change, the world moves on; what would have been good advice when I was 25 no longer applies to someone 30-some years younger than I am.

So this post seemed very foreign to me, though I can certainly understand the urge to Do All The Things (and look, I got a whole post of my own out of thinking about it). “I’ve been working for oh, 25-35 years . . . and I’ve accumulated some knowledge, maybe even a little wisdom, and there is SO MUCH that I want to teach . . .” It’s certainly useful to be able to break down processes and think how to do them efficiently, correctly, well. But this observation, from the same post, is more where I sit: “she’ll figure it out on her own, and with luck, won’t make the same mistakes I made. She can make new, different mistakes.”

Even if they are the same mistakes, they will be new to her. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and part of building a life. I may well have made some of the same mistakes made by my parents, and my grandparents too. But my reactions to them were mine, and my fixes were made in different circumstances, so it wouldn’t have done any good to have been warned.

To be totally consistent, I would now erase this post. Go do your own thing; there’s no point to reading my meanderings.

On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Pseudo-science and Rational Woo

First the disclaimer: I don’t believe in astrology.

However, I recently took a trip down memory lane that has to do with astrology. It started when I was reading an old thread at the Chron fora on which an astrologer was posting in ways that people on the thread seemed to find useful—more about working with symbols and archetypes than with predictions, sort of like reading Tarot cards in terms of what the symbols mean for the person getting the reading rather than as they’re generally interpreted. On a whim, I plugged my birth date and place into one of the sites that will give you a full horoscope, what house all your planets are in, the whole nine yards.

The results surprised me, because they were not what I have believed for the past more than forty years.

See, back when I was in junior high, I was quite “into” astrology. I don’t remember if I believed it, or what sparked my interest. Possibly there was a fad for it among my friends; perhaps one friend was annoying about interpreting everything in terms of sun sign, and I decided to find out more as a defense. I mean, obviously not everyone born under Virgo is going to get run over by an egg truck today. What I do remember is that I got books from the library, and read up on both the principles and the techniques, and then, to the best of my ability, calculated my horoscope with all the planets and houses. This was long before the internet, significantly before the computing power now available meant that inputting date, time, and place could instantly spew out all the details. It was also before my math skills were as developed as they later became.

So there I was, at the age of twelve, struggling with the tables and conversion factors in one of the books I’d checked out, and determining that my rising sign was Leo. I liked this result very well, not least because of my fondness for felines. I’m sure that doing all the work was useful in various ways. That is, on the social front, it no doubt allowed me to participate with authority in junior-high conversations (though I don’t remember this part—I try to forget as much as possible about junior high school). Certainly this was child-led education, in that I found something that interested me, went to the library, did the reading, did the math (to the best of my ability), and wrote up my results in a way that pleased me. If I neglected my school homework to do it, well, tant pis; I always have been one to do more of what interests me than what I have been assigned.

The results of my recent whim show that my rising sign is not Leo, nor is my moon where I believed it to be. So much for my long-ago efforts. Looking at what I’m “supposed” to be like according to my new horoscope, I scoff. Definitely a pseudo-science. But! What are the effects of believing, even for a short time, even only half-consciously, that you have certain characteristics? What effect on my adolescent psychology did it have, to believe (or at least, put about to my credulous friends) that I was self-aware, ambitious, faithful, authoritative, energetic, creative? Those are good things to believe about yourself, wherever you get the ideas. It’s hard, at twelve, to have established much of a personality or track record (or so it seemed to me, at the time: friends who knew me at 8 think I’m pretty much the same person now as then!). I spent a lot of time feeling like I was just not-quite at a lot of things I wanted to be better at, so it was helpful to have a horoscope assuring me that I was going to make it, eventually.

So now I wish I had disregarded all the tables and details of my actual birth and just cast for myself the best possible horoscope, the perfect forecast of the person I most hoped to become, and believed in that until I had a track record to believe in. This is what I call Rational Woo: “Sometimes in order to get where your rational self wants to be, you need a little woo-woo. Of course you know the odds against you: will your novel even find a publisher, let alone become a best-seller that will let you move to New Mexico and write full-time? Ha ha. Will your academic book really change the face of the discipline? Uh-huh. Will your dissertation even get you a job? Um . . . .

But an unwritten novel is guaranteed not to be published; the unwritten academic tome doesn’t stand a chance of changing anything; the unfinished dissertation will most certainly not get you the job that requires dissertation in hand. You can’t ensure your own success, that is true. But you can most certainly ensure failure. So you have to at least meet the bar of finishing whatever it is.

And so it’s time for the woo-woo that will let you shut off the voices and the doubts and get on with it. . . . It’s your fantasy life: let it be rich, productive, and comforting. Whatever keeps you doing the work, moving the project forward every day, taking baby steps if that’s what you’re able to do.” So I said seven years ago.

Right now, I want a horoscope that tells me I am a hard worker who sometimes needs significant down-time to let thinking happen in the background; that I can come roaring back from this slow period to knock out a lot of good work quickly; that my trip to visit family is going to go smoothly and be a refreshing change; that the next two months of this summer are going to be excellent for me in many ways, so long as I just keep truckin’.

What a fool believes? Whatever. If I say I have Leo rising, then I have a nice protective lion leaning over my shoulder to help me out, okay? Cat is my co-pilot! I can wake up from a nap and instantly nab a mouse! Cats never doubt themselves. They are perfect just the way they are. So I’m sticking with Leo as my horoscope-totem-whatever.