Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Trajectories

I walked to school today thinking about Archer's future.

He came home last night and told us that he'd gotten his scores on the ACT Explore test, a version of the college-entrance exam given to eighth graders. His composite was 23 out of 25. His math score was a perfect 25 out of 25.

Now, as a member of a collegiate admissions committee, I know that tests like this don't tell you nearly as much about a student's college readiness as the test companies would like to claim. But because admissions officers find it convenient to craft policies -- including scholarship policies -- that rely heavily on such tests as a shorthand for aptitude, the one thing you can say about a person who scores high is that he will receive lots of attention and lots of opportunities.

I thought about that on my two-mile walk to Cady Gray's school, then to mine. I talked about it with Cady Gray; she told me what her fifth-grade teachers were saying to their students about scholarships and college. Archer's college choices are likely to be shaped by his autism; he may not be able to leap into independence and go to school away from home. His sister won't have any such limits. I thought about the training, the challenges, the resources that will be available to students as capable and promising as they are. I walked onto my campus under a gorgeous blue sky, feeling like a wind was gathering under their wings, ready to lift them up. I imagined how they might soar.

Then I glanced at my phone while waiting for my chai latte, and saw the news of the three Muslim students killed at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.* Suddenly I was aware of the fragility of any student's promise. Hate and violence, motivated by whatever ideology makes you see difference as a threat, can strike anyone. It seems especially tragic and sad when it happens at a college, a place devoted to enlightenment, a place that draws people of all backgrounds and beliefs in a common quest for a better life, a more informed mind, skills that can build the future and solve problems. If we can't find a way to live without fear of difference there, then where?

Like all parents, I worry about the treacherous parts of college for my children: binge drinking, sexual assault, study and recreational drugs, depression, time and task management, interpersonal relationships, anonymity and isolation. I see students just as smart as my kids get derailed by one or more of these, year after year. One test, no matter how remarkable, won't inoculate them against those dangers. Even years of training and character-building are no guarantee -- for some of those pitfalls, you can do everything right and still wind up shattered and victimized. And then there's the rage, the prejudice, the deadly weapons, that sometimes strike out of a clear blue sky.

We can do better -- as college officials and administrators, as teachers, as citizens, as communicators, as neighbors -- to change the culture, to rescue those who stumble before they hit the ground, to talk back to hate loudly and consistently, to insist that the values of the education we provide -- complexity, diversity, rationality, empathy, free inquiry, solidarity -- escape the classroom and reach into every moment of our students' lives.

Only if we do better can my children, and yours, and the children of people all around us who look to the future in hope, climb on to that upward trajectory with confidence.

* Early reports don't indicate conclusively that the murderer was motivated by racial or religious hatred. I don't mean to draw that conclusion here about this particular crime, just to follow a train of thought sparked by the way I am routinely shocked by expressions of hate, division, intolerance, and violence in threat and actuality on my campus and others.

Monday, February 2, 2015

No regrets, just love

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Today's post, about the spirit of experimentation, is at Toxophily.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The ideal student

This semester, the team of instructors that teaches our first-year sequence is taking a fresh look at the syllabi for those courses. We've had some turnover since we last did this exercise, and it's time to incorporate the new members fully and reassess what the rest of us (including some folks no longer in the team) have brought to the table.

To start off, I borrowed an exercise that I found in a description of an earth sciences curriculum revision. The course designers think of the ideal student who has just finished the class, and ask themselves: What should that student be able to do? What should that student know?

This seems to dovetail nicely with a common topic of conversation among the faculty in my department. When we discover that a student in our upper-division courses, who like all our students has had this introductory sequence, does not know how to do something, we are frustrated. Why can't she cite her sources? Why doesn't he know how to use the library card catalog? Didn't they learn this in the first year? So one could approach answering those "ideal student" questions from the negative side: What gaps in skill or knowledge surprise us when they appear in our upper-division students?

Here's my first pass at answering those questions. Keep in mind that these are high-ability students, for better or for worse. For better: They've almost all had advanced courses (such as AP) in high school, and so can be presumed to start from a higher baseline and make more progress in the first year in college. For worse: They've often been able to conceal lacks and gaps by competence in other areas, and sometimes their schools have not pushed them because scarce instructional resources must be spent on lower-performing students.

The ideal student finishing Honors Core I and II should be able to ...

  • summarize the main points of a text
  • understand that different academic disciplines utilize distinct toolsets to shed light on "big" cross-disciplinary questions
  • defend assertions about an author's meaning and intent with textual evidence
  • understand how historical and cultural context shapes thinkers, thoughts, and texts
  • write meaningful, effective introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • outline an effective argument
  • follow that outline to produce an effective prose argument
  • construct clear, efficient sentences in formal writing
  • construct sentences with active verbs and agential subjects (avoiding passive voice and impersonal constructions)
  • avoid empty verbiage, including unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, repetition, and framing devices
  • employ effective and well-selected search strategies to find relevant information in the library, on the web, and in online databases
  • evaluate the reliability and value of information sources
  • apply the perspective of major thinkers and schools of thought to the student's own experience, beliefs, and assumptions
  • reevaluate, with an openness to revision, personal beliefs and assumptions in the light of new information, perspectives, and contexts
  • appreciate the disciplinary expertise and perspective of each member of the instructional team
  • welcome new information, perspectives, and contexts as an opportunity for personal growth
  • reflect on the student's own education as a historically-conditioned institution reflecting contested social values and visions
  • commit to further thought and exploration as a way of reconciling conflicts of perspective and value
  • exercise judgment in responding to feedback
The ideal student finishing Honors Core I and II should know ...
  • how Platonic philosophy came to shape current popular understandings of Christianity
  • how existentialism challenges claims, both ontological and moral, about essences and natures
  • how Darwin, Marx, and Freud crafted rich and compelling accounts of human nature's developmental history
  • the broad difference between idealism and materialism as accounts of reality and experience
  • the power of environment -- social and physical -- as a shaping force in experience and thought
  • the power of language and metaphor as a shaping force in experience and thought
  • that the answers to "big" significant questions are complex, historically conditioned, and multi-faceted
  • how the kinds of answers we give to "big" significant questions about humanity shape our response to current challenges and crises
I'm sure there's more -- or maybe there should be less. When the rest of the team responds and we look at it all together, I'll be interested to see how our ideal students are alike, and how they are different.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Style and struggle

2015 marks my sixteenth year teaching college freshman in writing-intensive courses. And not just any freshmen -- the top high school graduates of my state. Here's how the first few assignments of any given semester goes. They write informal reading responses for me that I love -- natural voice, clear presentation. Then I give them their first formal writing assignment. And all of a sudden, they write like space aliens forced to learn English through a 19th century grammar text and a thesaurus. Out of 500 words, fully half will be empty verbiage. Dangling introductory phrases appear out of nowhere. Idiomatic prepositions get mangled. Sentences run on and on, liberally sprinkled with commas -- or curiously devoid of a single pause. Avoidance of first person leads to pretzeled contortions -- or extraneous "I believe thats" and "In my views" pepper every other sentence. There is not a sentence to be found that would ever come out of a human being's mouth.

I find my hardest teaching task is getting these students to see and hear the impracticality of their writing. They are mortified when I point it out; it's obvious upon even a cursory second look. Yet the task of formal writing somehow makes it impossible for them to give that second look to themselves. I labor to get them to turn in clean, simple drafts. They have been rewarded for writing in this way, I suppose, and so that is the spigot that gets turned on whenever paragraphing and word counts are among the expectations. I wish I knew the magic words to get them to approach these formal writes in the natural, conversational, clear way they write informally.

Friday, January 16, 2015

And I'm sending you out this signal here

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Today's post, about what is coveted and what is priceless, is at Toxophily.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Replay ruins everything

At some point during almost every football game Noel and I watched this season, he had to endure the same rant from me. It's the replay rant. There are ancillary rants, but they are all related to the replay rant. I can sum it up with the title of this post, although of course there are so many nuances.

Here are some of the things replay has ruined:

  1. Pace. It's very possible that replay is what prevented Oregon from competing in the national championship on Monday.
  2. Refereeing. All calls are provisional now. I even heard the color announcer Monday night praising the referees for making a call precisely to provoke a review so they could see what really happened.
  3. The rulebook. The infamous Calvin Johnson rule is only one example. Verities on which I have built my life -- the ground cannot cause a fumble, for instance -- are now subordinate to bizarre standards that stretch the definitions of "catch," "fumble," "possession," and even "move" into absurdity.
  4. Touchdowns. Even though the new rules require players to "control the ball" all the way through their fall to the ground and beyond, the "break the plane" standard for touchdowns means that as soon as the ball pierces that barrier, nothing that happens thereafter matters. Players shove the ball toward the plane knowing that even if it leaves their hands, they still score.
  5. Consequences. Coaches have challenges, which was supposed to keep the play moving on the field so that every incident wasn't litigated in replay. But now referees call for reviews much more often than coaches, and certain plays are automatically reviewed, so the coaches don't have to make those calculations about whether it's worth it to challenge.
Tennis is the only sport I know where replay -- in the form of the Cyclops -- has actually improved the game, helping the officials "get it right" without destroying the athletes' pacing and provoking an infinite regress of arguments. Baseball is moving in football's direction, even after only one season; the idea that a replay of a close play at first is more likely to yield the truth than the ump watching the foot and listening for the ball to hit the glove is a fantasy. And it's a dangerous one -- a fantasy that insists that higher frame rates and better definition and more detailed rules will result in more justice, when what it actually does is disintegrate the event under examination until it is completely lost.

If I ever teach that class on philosophy of sports again, I'm going to hold a class full of students hostage with that rant. I hope somebody in the league offices is wise and powerful enough to ski off this slippery slope before then.

Monday, January 12, 2015

You've got to set them up

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Today's post, about the long journey of yarn to find its purpose, is at Toxophily.

Friday, January 9, 2015

One hour, twelve years ago

Yesterday I walked over to the College of Business to work a shift at the Welcome Tent. The university sets up several of these around campus, food service stocks them with cookies and hot apple cider, and faculty volunteers staff them for the first couple of days of class, making returning and new students feel welcome and answering any questions they might have.

There were three faculty chatting at the table when I walked up. I greeted them, and the one I knew by name introduced me around to the others. "When I first started here," he said, "Donna bought me coffee and spent an hour talking with me. I've never forgotten it."

His reminiscence startled me. I had certainly forgotten it. But it came back to me. I had seen him at church, and gone over to say hello and introduce myself during the peace. He mentioned that he was new at UCA, and I emailed later to invite him to grab a cup of coffee and chat. Make him feel welcome, just like we were trying to do with the students that day. Answer his questions. And here he was, twelve and a half years later, telling these other faculty how much it meant to him.

I remember that impulse, to take some extra time to make sure someone sees a friendly face, has someone to listen to them. It's something that I was never consistent in doing, back in those early days, but occasionally the opportunity would arise and I would seize it. The busier I got, the higher-stakes every hour of my day seemed to be, the less I did that. I've been uncomfortably aware of how little time I've been willing to devote to such things in the past few years. One of my 2015 resolutions is to commit to them again -- to spend time with students and colleagues, to take advantage of those chances that come along to be the friendly face, the listening ear.

Thanks, Mark, for reminding me how much even a little time, a long time ago, can matter.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Opening day

Ah, the first day of the semester. When everything is pristine. None of the students are jaded yet; none are alienated. No papers or journals are stacked up waiting to be graded. All is possibility.

I read years ago that students form an impression of their teacher's competence in the first few minutes of watching them, and that nothing that occurs thereafter changes that impression. That's a terrifying thought. What if the technology goes wrong in those first few minutes? What if you call someone by the wrong name? What if you make a joke and it falls flat?

A couple of years ago, I went to a teaching workshop where one of my teaching heroes, David Dussourd, told us about what he does on the first day of his introductory biology class. He's an entymologist, and a world-class photographer of insects. "Why study insects?" he asks his students. They typically offer a wide range of answers: to fight insect-carried diseases, to understand evolution, etc. Then Dr. Dussourd offers his answer: "We study insects because insects are exquisite."

That word has stuck with me. It simultaneously conveys the intrinsic value of the object of study, and the wonder and delight it evokes in the student. I think every scholar should feel the same way about her subject. And if that's so, then the role of the teacher is to open the student's eyes to the ways what is being studied is exquisite.

Every year I enter the classroom for the first time hoping to do this for my subject -- whether it be religious belief, religious practice, scripture, axiology, film, television, or the big interdisciplinary questions raised in the first year of our program (what is human existence? how do we experience it together?). And by the end of most semesters I'm pretty sure I've failed. Yet on the course evaluations, somehow it becomes apparent that more students than not have gotten it. They've seen through all the mess of a course -- assignments, logistics, timetables, deadlines, organizational schemes, improvisation -- and grasped what it was supposed to be all about.

It's their perseverance in the face of what Walker Percy called the "preformed symbolic complex," the educational "package" (or "postcard" as we like to call it here), that makes the class work. It's not my doing, believe me. All I can offer is a little space in the window of education with the mud rubbed away, smeary and streaky and soon fogged over. If they are alert and intrepid enough to gaze through, they get all the credit. On the other side, without fail, there is something exquisite.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

One shivering step at a time

One of the great things about getting back into the semester routine is that my exercise and eating habits level out a bit. I'm making my first concerted effort to lose weight in many, many years, and I've been looking forward to the day when I could start counting on that two-mile walk every morning: taking CG to school, swinging back by the house to pick up my stuff, then heading to the office. It's a lot easier to get to my 10,000-step goal when I start every weekday that way.

So I watch the weather like a hawk, because storms or dangerous conditions can derail that exercise I count on. And dangerous conditions might be present tomorrow morning, with overnight temperatures forecast to go as low as 11 degrees. I'm going to have to make up those 6500 steps somewhere else tomorrow.

When I say that I'm making a concerted effort to lose weight, this is what I mean. For many years -- including here on this blog -- I've been following the No-S Diet. It certainly kept me from getting out of control. But it's a rule of thumb, a way to give yourself structure so you don't overdo it. It's not -- at least in the way I handled it -- a goal-based system that holds you accountable for results.

It's not like I haven't known I'm overweight. The Wii Fit Balance Board made sure of that, along with every BMI chart that got handed to me at an employee wellness meeting. I won't even mention the way the mirror disapproved. But the thing that made the consequences of that real to me were the cholesterol numbers that came back from a blood screening. Researching how to lower them, the first thing on every list was "lose weight." Time to get serious, then.

For me, having a plan and a program is fun. I love systems and collect them obsessively. Systems for time management, workflow, organization -- they energize me. Finding the best system is fun. Implementing it turns on my reflective and assessing capacities, keeping me alert and aware of my own reactions. Living within a system is soothing. At its best, an elegant, well-designed system delights me on a daily basis.

So of course I made my New Year's resolution into a system -- an ecosystem, really, with quantified-self tools old and new feeding into the plan. I was already using a Fitbit to set step and climbing goals for each day, Runkeeper to track walks and jogs, and Gym Hero to record strength training (uh oh, looks like that last one might be about to hit the skids -- hasn't been updated in 18 months). Years of reading about various diet schemes made it clear to me that the only thing that mattered was calories -- more out than in, the weight comes off. MyFitnessPal integrated with the tools I was already using, calculated a daily calorie allowance for me, and provided a food diary so I could keep myself within it. Noel, really rolling the dice but coming up a big winner, got me an Aria scale for Christmas. I couldn't even wait to start until after the holidays, so enticing was this system.

In some ways, the system provides a kind of satisfaction that makes it hard for me to feel deprived. Gamification really works on me. A badge, a smiley-face, a cheer from an online friend, keeping my graphs in the green -- those stupid rewards matter, for whatever reason. I dreaded getting serious about losing weight for years, and hoped futilely that by exercising more or cutting out dessert, it would be enough. I was afraid of feeling constantly deprived, constantly aware of what I wasn't getting to have or do -- a depressing prospect. But my dread was misplaced. It's not like that at all. And the realization that all I really have to do is keep going like I have been these last three weeks, and slowly but surely my goal will come into sight, a goal that once seemed unattainable without drastic measures -- well, that produces a kind of euphoria that even my most-loved foods would be hard-pressed to match.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Insta-Hat

It's fun to say. Try it! Insta-Hat!

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More pics, and the story, over at Toxophily.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Welcome back

I finished a book in 2014. It's the first time I've done that all on my lonesome since the early days of my professorship, when I turned my dissertation into a book. Looking back at the process, similarly to that previous experience, it's hard to believe I had the discipline. The introduction was written during the spring, but it wasn't until early May that I had a chance to start the body of the book in earnest. During the twelve weeks of summer break I wrote five chapters -- a pace of 1 chapter every 2.4 weeks. I knew that once the fall semester started, I wouldn't be able to keep up that pace. But with a deadline of late November, I needed to get close to it.

I'll never forget the moment in early October when I finished chapter 7. For weeks I'd been mapping out the time remaining on my deadline. "Chapter 7 is the third from the end," I rehearsed to myself. "Then one in October, one in November, and boom -- I'm done." Then, after putting that antepenultimate chapter to bed, I turned to my master outline. Wait -- what's this? There are ten chapters in my book?! That's right. I had allowed myself to misremember based on the nine themes I was exploring, one per chapter. But chapter 1 was background, not one of the themes. I still had three chapters to go. Writing the third-from-the-end chapter again in October was a low point. And I knew that Thanksgiving was right out. So I told my editors it would be Christmas, and I worked through my trip to the annual AAR meeting in San Diego -- the one I thought would be a book-finishing party -- to finish chapter 9. Finally, on the Friday before Christmas, I submitted the manuscript.

Since then, it's been vacation from almost everything having to do with school or scholarship. We played tabletop games with the kids everyday, from their first day of the break through New Year's. I relaxed into post-Christmas-rush knitting, the very best kind, when the deadlines fade and the knitter can consider her long-term needs and goals as well as her short-term gratification. Football ruled on the television, and we snuck a few screenings of 2014's best movies into our schedule, too. Noel made the most amazing holiday food of our lives -- baked goods, prime rib for Christmas dinner, a Yule log, corned beef and cabbage for New Year's Day.

I knew that when the calendar rolled over to 2015, my life would look very different. There's no book that I need to push forward a few more pages every day. Without having to carve out an hour or two, whatever could be spared, in my schedule for writing -- without promises to editors looming -- my prospects seemed to stretch out before me limitlessly.

So I made some resolutions. Here I am fulfilling one of them -- I'm going to get back to freewriting every day. It may not always be blogging, but it's likely to be blogging, quite a bit of the time. I've got a year's backlog of projects to post on Toxophily. And I'm tired of having a thought worth exploring, thinking "I ought to blog about that," and realizing that I'm not going to because all my writing energies need to be bent toward my book. I'm going to blog about those, this year.

Because it's freewriting, it's not going to be priceless pearls over here every day, loyal readers. Some days it will be just a brain dump, or worse -- the writing equivalent of taking the garbage to the curb. I'll try to be discerning enough to leave the dregs in draft.

But I'm excited about being back here. It's part of a larger set of resolutions, about making time for people I care about. Far too frequently in the past two years, as I've researched then written this book, my students and colleagues have knocked on my door only to have me communicate to them, by words or attitude, that I don't have time for them. I've stopped reading blogs and participating in my online communities. Yet when I do spend time with people who need my help or just want my company, they receive far more from me than I am actually expending. This year, and going forward, they're going to be welcome in my office, on my schedule, in my life.

That includes you, if you're reading this! I'm here for you. Ask a question, suggest a topic, offer feedback. I'll see you back here often.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Vacation, all I ever wanted

Well, close enough, anyway. Noel and I divvied up the vacations this year; he took the kids to see their Tennessee grandparents back in June, and I am taking them to see their Georgia grandparents for the next few days. When we get back, it will be almost time for school to start, and my children will be nearing their 10th and 13th birthdays.

Traveling with the kids at this age reminds me forcefully, almost painfully, of traveling with my family when I was a child. The ages my children are now comprise the age ranges where I was most acutely aware in travel, most alert and alive to its adventure.  None of the responsibilities or decisions were mine; all the exploration was available. My brothers and I took off at every stop to reconnoiter the area.

We're staying in a hotel near the Little Rock airport tonight so that we don't have to drive down from Conway in the pitch blackness of 4 am to make our early morning flight. Of course, the kids are thrilled. In their shoes, I would be riding the elevators to every floor and trying to find an arcade machine and begging for change to get something from the vending area. It's hard to imagine me setting my kids free to roam the way we were at that age. Helicopter parenting? The natural concerns of parents about a special-needs kid? Or is it just that I've raised them to be happy homebodies, not pushing those boundaries, no urge to roam?

I surprised myself during the last few days by how much I've looked forward to this trip. And it's all because I know how excited the kids are to navigate airports, ride unfamiliar highways, nail down mental maps of new places. Oh, and see their Granny Lou and Papa, who are always happy to play games and whip up little snacks and go on long walks. Nothing wrong with that, either.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Writing about writing

I shared a couple of Archer's writing camp pieces last week. Now here are a few of Cady Gray's compositions.

First thing each morning, the campers had prompts on the board and did a little writing before the official start of the schedule. The first day's quickwrite prompts were about being a fabulous writer.

What makes you a fabulous writer?
My writing is fabulous because of description and tone. I love describing objects or animals or even people, with fancy words. However, you have to keep a friendly tone, and too many fancy words spoil that tone. It is like that old saying, "Too much spice spoils the broth," or something like that. Just stay the same person throughout your writing. Don't be dramatic in some parts and casual in others. 
What could cause a writer to lose their thrill of writing?
If a writer stops writing for a while, they may pick it up again later. Then, one of two things will probably happen. One, they will "come back with fresh eyes," which means to catch things you didn't before, like spelling mistakes. Two, they will fumble a lot more and get mad at themselves, not wanting to continue and be disappointed again, and again, and again.

I think that the last day's quickwrite was about seeing a glimmer out of the corner of your eye. What happens next? You can see the influence of the YA fantasy-adventure she loves to read in this one.

I slowly creep toward the glimmer, hoping silently for gold. I reach it, and it is as if the very sun has broken through the ground to peek up at the earth. The glimmer rises from the ground, too bright to look at, and everything goes to black ...
"I am in a dream," is my first thought. A rippling effect, pink and resonating. That is what I see in front of me, all around me. A voice, soft and innocent, speaks. "Help ... you ... You must save ... our world ... You are the only one ..." A shock passes through my spine as the ripple effect becomes more violent and the pink turns to purple. Another voice, desperate and echoing, screams. "HELP!" A fuzzy vision plays in my head. An oval-spheric pink blob is there, floating above the ground. It has large eyes and a flap-like mouth. It has no nose, and purpleish spots along its sides. It is being chased by a three-headed dragon-like creature. The middle head snaps at the blob, and it all fades into white ...