Monday, May 31, 2010

Busy relaxing

Like a preview of summer comes Memorial Day. Its salient feature: the need to find something for the kids to do.

I dreamed up three special activities for their school holiday -- one for each kid, and one for the whole family. This morning right after breakfast, Archer and I went running at Tucker Creek Trail. Then after I got back and changed clothes, Cady Gray and I went to Starbucks for a knitters' retreat. And after lunch, we all went down to North Little Rock for a minor league baseball game.

I've never been one to make big plans on holidays that are supposed to be about relaxing. All the organization feels too much like work. But even thought we had to make the half-hour drive to Little Rock and back for the ball game -- driving is not my favorite way to unwind -- everything else was exactly what a holiday should be. I spent quality time with each of my children, doing something we share a love for. And we all got out into the summer sun with our fellow Arkansans, cheered on some ballplayers, ate some funnel cake and frozen lemonade, and wore ourselves out.

I'm ready to get back to work tomorrow, though. To be honest, I've been looking forward to this week's two half-day prep and research retreats since the weekend started. The summer is here, and it's time to take the wheel.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let your arms enfold us

If you recognize the lyric in the title to this post, you've probably spent some time playing the venerable Wii game Endless Ocean. It was one of the first games we go (on the recommendation of friends and acquaintances) when we purchased our Wii. For awhile it languished as we knocked ourselves out on Mario games, but in the last month or two it's been on heavy rotation after Cady Gray decided she would begin playing. And her enthusiasm for the game has infected Archer, too, who has become almost as interested as she in collecting new species and filling in the blank spots on the map of Manoa Lai Sea.

I'm fascinated by this development, because all of Archer's gaming obsessions to date have been centered around scoring. There's no scoring in Endless Ocean -- only exploration. The game moves slowly, only advancing in terms of a plot when you decide to take its increasingly gentle hints about where to dive. But Cady Gray's delight in identifying seadwellers and unlocking new areas is infectious. Archer now exhibits the same reaction, exclaiming "I got the Parade Float Sea Slug!" with as much excitement as he reports a new high score in pinball or his current monetary total in Monopoly.

A sequel to Endless Ocean, Blue World, was released recently. I hadn't been giving it much thought because the AV Club review was negative (of course, they didn't like the first one either), and at that time the game was languishing in our cabinet. But now I'm thinking that it might encourage Archer's openness to less structured narratives. Do you know of other games that might offer similar experiences?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A few stolen moments is all that we share

Today's post celebrating inhibitionless knitting is at Toxophily.

Noel and I went out for dinner and a brief shopping excursion tonight, the first time we've been out without the kids in a couple of weeks. And it was about time; I had a whole dramatic arc of work news saved up to tell him. It may seem strange, but at least on my end, we don't usually engage in long conversations about my job or research except when we're out on date night. I tend to get really animated and long-winded, for one thing, and I have to go way back in time and way deep into philosophical detail. When there are kids requesting your full attention and tending to interrupt any conversation of more than a few sentences, it just doesn't make sense to even get into it.

But I pay a price for saving it all up; explaining it to someone out of academia and out of administration really helps to get it straight in my own head and figure out whether my take on it makes sense. I don't know what other couples do on their date nights, but that's a big reason I look forward to ours.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Last day

Ever since I got here -- and for more than a decade before that -- our administrative assistant Glenda has been the repository of all expertise, all wisdom, and all knowledge in our department. Today was her last day at work. And it's truly the end of an era.

Despite the numerous tributes and events throughout this spring celebrating her time with us, I doubt any of us have really processed what it will mean to be without her. I know I haven't. As I said goodbye this afternoon in her suddenly bare office, devoid of the photographs, postcards, and knickknacks that hundreds of students have given her over the years, none of it seemed quite real. I know I'll be back at work on Tuesday, and in the weeks and months to come, thinking every so often, "Oh, Glenda would know" or "I need to ask Glenda about ..." before remembering.

As hard as it will be on us, it will be harder on Glenda. And these moments always make me think of my own retirement someday. What will my emotions be? What will I regret, what will I look forward to? Will I step aside with grace, with resentment, with fear, with relief? With each retirement I witness, I try to learn lessons about how to do it right. But it's hard to imagine that those memories will be stronger than whatever the psychological or social forces that will buffet me at the time. Retirement is a strange phenomenon of our age. There's probably no way to handle it perfectly. We can only hope not to erase the goodwill of decades by our demeanor as we exit.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I know I'm not a hopeless case

Today's post about awakening from a long winter's nap is at Toxophily.

Archer woke up in some kind of good mood today. After breakfast, as Noel was about to tell the kids to go get dressed, he suddenly leaped into Noel's arms and gave him a huge hug and cuddle. "Just delaying," he grinned, and when Noel asked for clarification, he added, "Delaying your instructions."

This evening he came out of his room holding a pile of marbles in one hand. "I have twenty-three marbles in this hand," he announced. "Is that some kind of record?" I asked. "I read that a world record by an adult was eighteen marbles," he remarked. "Did you break it?" I marveled. He beamed. "Look at my hand," he said quietly.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Some days you come home all proud and ready to reward yourself for getting so much done. Some days you work hard all day but don't have a feeling of accomplishment at the end. And the difference between those two kinds of days has little to do with how productive you actually are.

This morning I took my Wednesday half-day retreat to the local coffee shop to prepare my new class for the fall semester. I toiled over course objectives that could be linked to assignments and to the course topics outline, then read for the course for almost an hour. When I left, I felt like I had made some real progress, although the number of words I put down in my draft syllabus would strike some as minimal.

Then this afternoon I set about my second table-clearing project for the week: combining all my students' work on parking and transportation at the university into a single report. I created a cover page, standardized all the formatting, numbered the appendices, and labored for three solid hours on transforming a bunch of research papers and some other text and pictures into a cohesive, professional report.

By the end of the day, I was ready to produce a table of contents, the last piece. I decided to print a copy to make it easier for me to flip through and pull out the titles of the various appendices and figures. Some sections had color charts, maps, and illustrations, and so I sent a few pieces to the color printer.

And that's where my highly productive day turned frustrating. Our color printer is a decade old, and so finicky it's hardly worth sending a print job. Seven pages in, she decided to run paper through the duplexer for no discernible reason, and that was it. I couldn't find all the paper jams, I couldn't cancel the job, and I couldn't get it to print anymore.

So I came home feeling like I'd been spinning my wheels all day -- when it was really only the last step that had gone wrong. But because that last step was so frustrating, it slopped back over on everything else I had accomplished ... because all that other stuff was largely in my perception. I didn't produce a finished syllabus or essay, and I didn't get a hardcopy of my report. It's easy to believe I didn't really do anything worth mentioning. Maybe I need a meter that will measure my productivity in objective, standard units so I don't have to rely on my highly variable perception.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Sometime last week, I came to the realization that it was time to close out this past semester. I've been itching to get started on exciting new projects -- crafting a new syllabus, making headway on research -- and have had little enthusiasm for all the cleanup that needs to be done to put old projects to bed.

But it suddenly hit me: This is the last week of May. May is the beginning of the summer schedule for me, but it's also got one foot in the spring semester. We don't finish our official academic year's work until May 15. The last two weeks of the month could be thought of as a plunge into a new season. But they could also be a short respite before summer begins in earnest.

With that realization, I acquired an unexpected appetite for unfinished business. I picked up a knitting work-in-progress that had been dormant since late 2009. And I committed to bringing two large projects to completion at work -- editing a collection of essays I'd been putting off for months; and organizing my students' work on the parking project into a report that can be delivered to the administration. When June arrives next week, I'll have both of those tasks done and will be ready to enjoy the novelty of looking forward.

Monday, May 24, 2010

And it's over

Some of you don't watch Lost. So some of you are scratching your heads over all the hoopla. But in this household, and in thousands of others nationwide, it's the end of an era.

Noel stayed up until 3 am writing a five-thousand-word post about the final episode. A placeholder set of notes he put up shortly after the episode ended had a thousand comments by the time he got his full essay up.

This morning he's been quoted all over the internet and on social networks. Huffington Post, Us Magazine, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Time Magazine, and any number of television-specific and Lost-specific sites, plus countless Twitter feeds -- all have mentioned and responded to his coverage.

Frankly, one thing we'll miss -- or at least I'll miss; I shouldn't speak for Noel -- is the sense of being at the center of the cultural conversation. The Lost blog led us to have some good conversations about television writing in general, and about the emerging conventions that surround them in the instant-reaction environment of the web. I hope Noel -- and the TV Club -- have gained some readers. And I'm sure that the thinking, reading, and writing we've done in this high-profile area will inform and improve our work to come.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

This is the end

Tonight is the finale of Lost, and far be it from me to chart a course different from the Internet at large by writing about anything else.

While I've followed the show with interest and often passion over the years, it's had the most impact on our family because Noel has been writing about it since Season 4. His Lost blog on the A.V. Club's TV Club site has gathered a large and passionate community; every post generates hundreds of comments within an hour of being posted. Having such a devoted and opinionated audience takes its toll on him. He labors for hours -- sometimes days -- on each post, prewriting with non-episode-specific points he wants to make, taking notes during the show, then staying up until the wee hours to finish essays that can sometimes run to thousands of words.

Writing about the show has given Noel lots of opportunities, too; he's been on podcasts and gotten invitations to speak, especially as the series draws to a close. I'm in awe of what he's managed to do, keeping several years' worth of mythology in his head and making minute connections in the ever-more-complex story and structure of the show. I don't watch television that way; my readers on the How I Met Your Mother blog are often annoyed with me for not picking up on the relatively miniscule cast of recurring characters and jokes for that show. I could never do what Noel does, especially with such grace and insight.

Although there will be a hole in our lives when Lost ends after tonight, we'll be glad, too. There's a lot of pressure on Noel because of the prominence of this blog, and he certainly spends time and effort that's disproportionate to his compensation on this one task, maintaining quality and nurturing the community of his readers. What will take its place? Fringe has some of that potential, but it's not nearly the phenomenon that Lost has been. Few of us TV writers have had the dubious blessing of writing about an instant cult favorite, with all the scrutiny and responsibility that entails. And none of us knows where the finger of fate will point next.

At this point, we're determined to see the show through and evaluate its overall impact not based on moment-by-moment reactions, but on what it might mean as a long-form serialized drama, one of the most successful of its kind both critically and commercially. History will be the ultimate judge, but our goal as TV writers is to create a space where reflection can happen in the ephemeral timeframe of the broadcast schedule. Read Noel's years of coverage, and I think you'll see some of the best of that kind of writing anywhere.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

This kind of blank adventure happens all the time

Today's post about a scarf for the next phase of life is at Toxophily.

I spent the afternoon playing Settlers of Catan with Archer. The game is second in his affections only to chess; he spends hours playing it either in its full-fledged board game version or on Noel's iPod, and that's accompanied by more hours reciting the rules to us. A friend responded to my Twitter updating mentioning the game by calling it a "gateway drug." And that sounds fine to me. If Archer's going to get hooked on anything, it might as well be the infinite variations and branching decision paths of strategy games. Does anybody have suggestions for a next step down this road?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Listening too long to one song

Today's post about gifts for the fashion-forward is at Toxophily.

I spent the morning off campus working through a long-term research project. It was a long-overdue chance to reconnect with something that many of us academics love -- reading books, making notes, building a conceptual framework around a topic, constructing an argument. When you spend your time in administration trying to build policies and procedures, you can forget about the other things you enjoy building.

It felt slightly silly to be at the coffee shop doing my research, because the only other person who was scheduled to be in the office today was a secretary. Surely I could have been just as productive in the empty office. But it turns out that letters we sent at the beginning of the week alerting our students to various levels of problems with their GPAs were received today, and the floodgates of calls and questions opened up. In the afternoon the phone barely stopped ringing. And the wisdom of my off-campus research retreat was revealed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The night is young and so am I

Today's post about discarded yarn transformed into the ultimate luxury is at Toxophily.

It's been an unexpectedly busy week at my office. But nonetheless, it's recognizably the first full week of summer. I've managed to start my schedule of taking two half-days off campus to work uninterrupted on course prep and research. And despite our department being audited, a late student thesis presentation, and two rather major staff meetings, I made progress on all my tasks. What's disappointing right now is that I still haven't put last semester behind me yet; work from both my classes remains to be brought to completion, and a deadline I set for myself at the end of the week on another old project I'm ready to put to bed will only be halfway met. All I can do is soldier on and hope that when the calendar turns to June, I'll be completely facing forward.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The wizard of Menlo Park

When I was Archer's age, I spent hours reading the stories in the Childcraft supplements to our bookshelf of World Book Encyclopedias. One of those stories was about the young Thomas Alva Edison saving a child on the railroad tracks while he was working in a telegraph office. Others that I will never forget until the day I die involved the invention of the ice cream cone, the hot dog, and the safety pin.

Today Archer gave a Powerpoint presentation on Thomas Alva Edison. He did a fantastic job, presenting a rather quirky (and occasionally dubious) collection of facts, while enunciating clearly, making clarifying asides, and even cracking a couple of jokes. Here's a very brief, impressionistic video that gives you an idea of what it was like to be there.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Of happiness

One of the many joys of living in a neighborhood full of tall trees is the variety of birds I see and hear every day. Just now on our after-dinner walk I saw a bluebird fly, alight, and then take off again in a flash of brilliant color. I see hawks occasionally. The sound of woodpeckers is everywhere during the summer, and I frequently stop and peer through the branches until I spot them clinging to the tree trunks.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking to my car in a perimeter parking lot on campus, and perched high on a dead tree I saw a large raptor with a white head. It was hard to tell with few context clues to judge relative size, but he was at least as big as the mature hawks I see around here sometimes. I stood beside my car for five minutes hoping to see him fly, but he just swayed on the tip of his leafless branch.

At least in terms of the apparent size and the white head, he was a dead ringer for a bald eagle. But we don't have those in Arkansas, I'm pretty sure. So all you naturalists out there -- what kind of bird do you think it was?

Monday, May 17, 2010

High tech

After some willful excess and embarrassing lack of control in recent years, the university is auditing all units that grant scholarship money. The auditor came by today to see what procedures we have for awarding scholarships and renewing them.

We set up a projector and demonstrated our extensive database application set for making admission decisions and tracking student progress. As we were going from screen to screen, report to report, I had the strange experience of suddenly seeing my everyday routine from the outside. I'm so used to having instant access to the data I need and to navigating complex workflows with proprietary, custom-built software that I forget not everyone has such a system. The auditors were duly impressed -- not just with the information technology we've developed, but with the procedures thereby supported.

The truth is that we couldn't make the kind of fine -- sometimes qualitative -- distinctions among applicants and students, based on the kind of difficult-to-evaluate data that we believe are the best indicators of success, without a sophisticated database and ways to use its content. All of our ambition to improve our recruiting, admissions, and retention is built on the availability of information. It's only when we're reminded that not everyone has built such mechanisms, either because they don't realize they should or because they don't have the resources to do so, that I realize how lucky we are to be able to do what we do -- and dream what we dream.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Your last chance

Tuesday is primary day, and we have some hotly contested seats here in Arkansas. The biggest race is the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Blanche Lincoln. She has a fierce challenger in the Democratic primary: Bill Halter, currently the Lieutenant Governor.

I definitely need some help in this race. I'm registered Democratic and intend to vote in the primary, as does Noel. I'm disinclined to vote strategically -- that is, to vote for the candidate I think has the best shot to win the general election in November -- because I think the situation could be entirely different by then, and the mood of the electorate unpredictable.

So I'm choosing between these two candidates based on their merits. I'd like nothing better than to vote for a genuine progressive. National interest groups are trying position Bill Halter as that candidate. But the man has no voting record, having been a bureaucrat up until winning the Lieutenant Governor position in 2008. And he won that based solely on his pro-lottery platform -- a platform I deplore with a white-hot hatred. There's no way to tell what his positions will be once elected, as far as I can tell. There is an easy way to see what he's foisted on this state almost single-handedly: a state-sponsored crapshoot to fund scholarships for which there is no political will as an honest entitlement, spawning a bloated and overpaid bureaucracy that holds the legislature hostage by clucking its tongues over the poor students who will go without their $5000 a year unless the lawmakers give them everything they want, resulting in a depressingly few years (I confidently predict) in a plateau of revenue and corresponding hysterical pro-gambling propaganda lest the scholarships be reduced.

Lincoln, on the other hand, has a wishy-washy record in support of the Obama agenda, and played an annoyingly obstructionist role in the health care reform process over the last year. But she's a veteran, has seniority and the corresponding committee power, and has been endorsed by both Obama and Bill Clinton here in the waning days of the race.

The debates and the ad campaigns have been ugly on both sides. Lincoln came out in favor of massive exemptions to the estate tax in the latest debate (ugh), but Halter has consistently portraying her as a tool of health insurance interests (almost certainly untrue).

So I'm asking for help from my Democratic buddies, especially those of you in Arkansas. (If you have no recommendations for this race except "Go GOP in November!", I will take your comments as read.) Is there any good reason to choose Halter? Are there merits I have overlooked that don't have to do with predicting the race six months from now? Or is the anti-Lincoln case so strong that it doesn't matter whether Halter has anything going for him at all -- is "anyone but Lincoln" really a defensible position?

My vote hangs in the balance. I await your arguments.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sung by flaming tongues above

Today's post with your one-week scarf solution is at Toxophily.

It was a wonderfully ordinary weekend here. After the chaos and pressure of the end of the semester, I was finally able to sleep late (with fantastic dreams), spend time knitting with Cady Gray, go to lunch at my favorite spot with my family, and spend my usual Saturday in the usual ways. I've never been so glad to be in a rut.

Friday, May 14, 2010


It was a day of two picnics for Archer. His class went to Toad Suck Park all day. Then his school had a cookout this evening for students and their families. I told Cady Gray that her brother ate two out of his three meals outdoors.

Personally, I've never fully understood the appeal of picnics. My image of them primarily comes from memories of going to Fourth of July pops concerts in Chickamauga Park, hauling coolers and blankets to whatever tiny patch of open ground we could find on the crowded hill, and listening to the 1812 Overture under the stars with cannon firing on the other side of the tower. The food was never the starring attraction; it was really good (my mom's potato salad with the slices of hardboiled egg on top particularly), but I always thought it would be just as good indoors and I'd worry a lot less about wind, rain, bugs, and dropping my plate.

Now that I'm all grown up and no longer under the roof of teetotalers, I understand picnics a little better. A glass of wine as the sun goes down and the breezes blow certainly has its attractions. But I see a clear distinction between eating outdoors and drinking outdoors. Is there any food that is enhanced by an alfresco setting, the way a nice flowery white is? Isn't it, I posit to you, beverages that we really want to consume out on the open, rather than entire meals? Is there any liquid comestible that fresh air does not improve, from tea to pale ale?

Perhaps your picnic experiences are more food-centric than mine. If so, I'd love to hear counterarguments to my bold assertions about open-air drinking!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Experience, the best teacher

I spent the day with a few dozen colleagues at a workshop on service learning, and we found ourselves having to confront some difficult questions about our teaching and about our students' learning. From the evidence of the discussion, there are three basic questions that arise when we contemplate including service learning or experiential learning in our classes for the first time.

First we ask: Can I do this? Do I, the instructor, have the wherewithal to do this new thing? Usually we do not doubt our innate capacity to innovate or lead; we may, however, doubt that needed resources will be forthcoming, or feel that we lack models to follow. In other words, we believe that we could do it if we had a guide, or if we had access to needed moneys or personnel. It's external support we lack, not internal ability.

Then we ask: What would we do? What organizations in my community could I plug into? What opportunities exist that I would like to guide the students towards? Again, few of us professors would argue that the organizations and opportunities don't exist or are inaccessible. We may not know all about them, but we know that just a little research (something we're quite good at) would turn them up. We may even, if we think about it, realize that those organizations have people in them who are knowledgeable about and capable of coordinating volunteers and projects -- the kinds of things we'd be approaching them about.

It's the third question where we shift our thinking, often without realizing it. Can my students do this? While it would never occur to most of us to doubt our ability to create such a class and lead our students through it, we're often quite ready to believe that our students are incapable of navigating the path we map out for them. We may question their readiness for independent work, for critical self-reflection, for project-based learning, for collaboration, for responsibility, for self-assessment, for power, for the chance to determine the success or failure of the class, for a say. In the end, I believe this is the reason most professors who decide not to pursue service learning give: My students couldn't handle that.

And yet, as our facilitator demonstrated most forcefully today, these pedagogical methods challenge almost everything tradition tells us about what teaching is and what learning is. If we set them aside because of assumptions -- or even because of our personal experience -- about what students are capable of based on those traditional frameworks, we are letting conventional wisdom dictate to us at the very point where we are convinced (in the other two questions) of the viability of this path.

I know that I teach an exceptional group of students. But even in that rarified circle, I hear distressingly definitive statements being made about what they cannot do. I can only say "amen" to the facilitator's words today: If we are sure they can't do it, then it's a sure thing that they won't.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In between

There are two directions to look during an academic year -- backwards and forwards. This particular moment is poised on the cusp; it's time to look in both directions.

I spent the day reviewing the complete transcripts of everyone in our program. That's the essence of backwards-looking, and it can be quite enlightening. We all have an idea what happened among our student population in the last year, from our various perspectives and informants. But it's not until the data is available that we get a true global view. What's the truth behind the intimations of disaster or triumph that were whispered in the hallways? Who succeeded, who failed, and what was the overall trend line?

Grade review day, though, is also the beginning of serious forward-looking. We begin preparing to welcome the new incoming class. There are syllabi to be perfected. And everything we found out about our students' records triggers a set of actions and decisions that unfold for the next few months -- some need to enroll in summer school to bring up their grades, others rethink their majors.

There's no clear dividing line between what's behind and what's ahead in an academic year, although the definitive dates on the calendar give that illusion. Ideally, those syllabi you begin creating or revising around this time are built on a foundation ideas born of past experience -- maybe even the very recent past. Those incoming students got selected during the previous spring, based on values and processes invented in prior years. What becomes concrete in August is, in some ways, the manifestation of the past. We enjoy the renewal that comes with each academic year, but we shouldn't hope for a revolution. We'll always get the next year we deserve.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Surprise ending

Archer brought home a writing assignment today. From the worksheet attached to it, the assignment appeared to involve the (random?) selection of the main character and supporting character; on the chart those printed items were cut out and pasted in. Then Archer had written in the setting, problem, and solution. Here's the story he wrote (teacher comment: "Great story! Love the ending"); the worksheet follows.
Once upon Wed 30 Dec 2008 and 9 am, there was a scared racecar driver doing the Indy 500 at the racetrack downtown. He was in 37th place at lap 153 or 200. Then, he charged to the front of the pack at lap 192. At the last lap, a robot stepped in the track. The racecar driver was scared of the robot. He tried to accelerate, but the robot when faster. But when the driver finished, the robot gave him a gold medal for 1st place finish.
Parts of a Story
Sorting Mat
Main character: Who is the story about? A scared racecar driver
Supporting character: Who else is the story about? A kind robot
Setting: When and where does the story take place? At Wed 30 Dec 2008 9:00 am. At the race track
Problem: What is the problem of the main character? It sees a robot and tries to accelerate, but robot goes after him
Solution: How does the problem get solved? The robot gives the driver a gold medal

Monday, May 10, 2010

Judgment day

In the book Archer was reading to me tonight, the narrator expressed the opinion that when a kid gets a bad grade, it's like the teachers, parents, school, city and state get bad grades, too. "Why is that?" Archer asked.

"It's because we all responsible for helping you learn," I said. "When a kid fails, we've all failed to help him."

I had plenty of time to think about that idea today as I filled in the blank spots in my gradebook, double-checked my formulae and arithmetic, and submitted final semester grades to the registrar. Not everyone in my classes succeeded. And while the students who didn't succeed bear the responsibility, I know in my gut that in some cases, I bear it, too. I made decisions about how much I would do to ensure the students had a good experience and didn't run into problems. I could have done more, but I decided up front what my boundaries were.

And now when I see the dividing line appear between those who pushed their way through the difficulties I left intact, and those who didn't -- or couldn't -- I feel that responsibility. Yes, it's not solely mine. But part of it is, because I could have made different decisions and set different priorities. I don't feel that the grades I assigned were undeserved; that's not what I mean. It's just that they're my grades, too. And I have a right to be disappointed in myself when I contemplate them.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A million lights are dancing

Today's post about scarf addiction is at Toxophily.

And to conform to yesterday's precedent, here's another graduation picture for this site. These lovely recipients of baccalaureate degrees all rook the same freshman and sophomore seminars with me four years ago! Congratulations Elizabeth, Beth, and Natalie!


Saturday, May 8, 2010

As a rule

Today's post about conjuring sweater alchemy is at Toxophily.

And today's glory goes to the students who received degrees from my university today. My congratulations to all of you -- and to those who have taught alongside me, my gratitude!


Friday, May 7, 2010

Here's to real life

Here's to my students, leaving their undergraduate careers behind and heading off to work (some of them) or further schooling (most of them).

Here's to the summer of optional reading, travel, and relaxation they have planned.

Here's to the theses they defended today, the product of at least a year of work, encapsulated into twenty minutes of talk.

Here's to the best of those theses, the ones that exemplified the Honors College ideal of citizen-scholarship in astounding ways.

Here's to the student who combined a recreational passion with a tireless research imperative to produce a complete plan -- conceptual, financial, and geographical -- for a disc golf course in one of the most imperiled corners of campus green space, a plan that could create the infrastructure and community demand needed to preserve that natural area from development.

Here's to the student whose ambition to be an educator, along with her desire to help her little brother remember a grandfather, led her to study the literature on children's experience of grief and produce an innovative book that combines storytelling about memorializing a loved one with hands-on activities to do just that.

Here's to the gravity created by their concrete contributions to the communities that lent them their passion, and the life orbits that will be changed because of what they created.

Here's to the scholarly quest for answers, the imperative to change the world for the better, and these young men and women who brought them together. For real.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A happy ending

A semester-long college course -- especially a brand new one -- is a tightrope act. Is there a clear line from one end to the other? Are there any gaps where students might stumble? In some respect, you can't know the answers to those questions until you've gone all the way through it.

I just reached the end of a course that I've never taught before. It was a hybrid between a film aesthetics course I've done in various forms many times, and a crash course on digital filmmaking that I could never teach. Luckily I had a co-instructor who knew how to do that second part. But I mostly proposed the structuring, because I'm the experienced pedagogue. I strung the tightrope.

And two-thirds of the way across, I found that students were falling off right and left. I had given them what I thought was a generous cushion of time to work in groups to plan, shoot, and edit a short film. The students were divided into six groups. We have two high-end Canon cameras. I arranged things so two groups could have a camera for a week at a time, with two weeks left at the end where groups could check out cameras short-term for pickup shots. I shuffled the schedule a million ways to make it work.

But what I didn't know was that I wasn't including an important step. The footage they shot had to be digitized before they could edit it. The digitizing could only be done with the camera. So if another group took the camera for shooting, the previous group couldn't get their footage digitized. The time I had provided on the syllabus for them to edit got eaten up by waiting for the chance to make their footage usable. One group, the unluckiest of the bunch, got their camera late from the previous users and only had 24 hours to shoot before the next group needed it. They had to wait for the pickup shots slot to get the bulk of their footage. And the digitizing lag/bottleneck meant that they got their footage to edit less than 24 hours before the project was due.

Yet tonight's final exam film festival featured all six films, even the one from the snakebit group. That one was rough, certainly, but its energy and comedy elicited roars of laughter from the assembled students and guests. The groups invited the actors, extras, and friends that they recruited to work on their films to witness the final products. Every single one contained some memorable and sophisticated effect, and a couple were quite effective throughout. The audience laughed, gasped, and marveled for the whole ninety minutes. Despite all the unintentional debris I left for the students to hurdle on their way across the tightrope, they all made it to the other side.

I can't take any credit for their perseverance. I can only be glad that they didn't let my mistakes derail them. If there's a next time, I'll know better how to smooth the way for the students who follow -- thanks to the students this time who endured the roughest ride.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Parking principles

You may remember the saga of my students' research into the parking situation at UCA. (Parts 1, 2, 3.) When we last left the story, the students had split up into teams and fanned out to the archives, interviews, surveys, and library resources that gave them the answers they were searching for.

At that point we were loaded with information. We even had consensus on a thesis statement. But we needed to somehow transition from the phase where we educated ourselves to the phase where we do something about what we learned.

In order to make that turn, we went back to the first principles of the project. What values were exemplified in our work so far? If we knew that, maybe we would know how to proceed. Looking at the research we'd done, it seemed clear that the value we were all pursuing was information. We were looking for the truth in a sea of rumor, uncertainty, and bias. So whatever we decided to do with our work should be consistent with the priority of information.

We were all in agreement that having this information created an imperative for us to disseminate it. But to what audiences? The answer would determine the forms in which we'd communicate what we knew. We identified two audiences and further specified how we wanted to influence them.
  1. The UCA administration. We knew that we wanted to bring our perspective to the longstanding question of parking and transportation planning to the University administration, in the hope was that our conclusions could affect future policy. We sought to influence the decisions made by decision-makers. The appropriate form of communication for this audience seemed to us to be a detailed report. Which means we needed an executive summary of all the research done by the students in their various groups and on their own. Some students volunteered for that effort and produced several drafts, using information provided by the research groups on their most important messages.
  2. UCA students. This one was harder. What did we want to accomplish by sharing our information with them? We realized that we wanted to turn down the volume on the complaining we frequently hear about parking. We further wanted to dial down the pressure that sometimes comes from students demanding drastic solutions, like a parking deck. We settled on two forms of communication to this audience: flyers and Facebook. A graphics team came together to create a logo that would unify the campaign across both platforms. Another team formed to transform the project's most interesting and surprising results into pithy, informative flyers that could be distributed around campus. And another set of students, less cohesive and more individually motivated, began writing notes, creating groups, and setting up pages on Facebook around particular aspects of the project in which they were personally invested.
It helped immensely at this particular stage of the project -- the end of the research phase and the beginning of the action phase -- to go back to the motivations that were driving the overall process. What were we trying to do? What values were we acting on as we did it? What change did we want to see? Who did we need to reach to make it happen? And what kinds of communication will be most effective in reaching them? There was vigorous discussion and debate over the merits of particular ideas. It was remarkably easy to reach consensus, though, once we all saw through the details of what we'd been doing back to the reasons we were doing it. Those imperatives pointed the way to a particular set of actions and helped define the principles on which we could make choices about this or that strategy.

Next time -- the thrilling conclusion! Where did we end up, who was with us when we got there, and how did we change along the way?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Days of future past

In response to yesterday's post about Archer's recent literary tastes, Doc Thelma suggested A Wrinkle In Time. I had had the same thought; just a few months back, I would have thought those books way beyond his comprehension, but now I suspect he might be fascinated by them. I'll put them on his reading list!

I realized that it would be helpful, to those of you who might have books to recommend, to describe why I thought time travel would be an enticing subject.

Incident 1: A couple of weekends ago, Archer fell and got a bad rug burn on his arm. He refused all medical attention but seemed distressed. A few minutes after the event he came up to us with tears in his eyes and a quaver in his voice. "If only I could travel through time, everything would be all right," he managed.

Incident 2: During the tornado outbreak last weekend, we had to go to the bathroom (our safe room) when a funnel started forming near our location. I had the Weather Channel radar on my laptop, and we were watching the time-lapse "weather in motion" view. Archer was fascinated by the timestamps on radar images, especially noting the fact that the latest one -- the "right now" image -- was actually five to ten minutes old. After the danger had passed, when I was tucking him into bed, he said with a delighted smile on his face: "It's like the radar was taking us back in time."

I'm sure there are lots of books where time travel is a mechanism to get some kind of plot going about history or whatever. Are there books he might like, similar to A Wrinkle In Time, where the nature of time and the consequences of moving through it in an unorthodox way are major themes?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Trying out fiction

I read with Archer every night. He's made a habit of bringing home non-fiction books of various kinds -- science, weather, biography -- many of which are really far below his level. I've been trying to tempt him with various longer-form juvenile novels, using the little I know about the fiction he has enjoyed ... stories from the perspective of animals, or with a school setting.

After I asked him to bring home a storybook that is "a little more challenging," Archer delighted me a couple of weeks ago by selecting Frindle by Andrew Clements. And to my further delight, he seemed utterly engaged and charmed by the story. The school setting helped, as did the notion of the new word, the dictionary, and the real-world consequences of Nick Adams' coinage.

Last night Archer read the final chapter to me, and he could barely keep the grin off his face as he described the secret messages and surprises being passed back and forth between the protagonists ten years after the events of the main story. I asked him afterwards if he thought that was a good ending. "That was a great ending," he corrected me.

I guess he was listening when I talked about how much I enjoyed the book and hoped he would bring home another like it. Another Andrew Clements book was in his backpack today -- The Report Card. Archer is already talking about the back blurb, which describes the plotline of a girl who gets bad grades on purpose even though she's a genius. Will this be the start of a more broad-based enjoyment of fiction? Or will this Clements phase be a passing craze? I'd love to get your suggestions for books at this level (fourth to sixth grade) that he might like, what with his various autistic obsessions. A special request: Archer has made two memorable references to time travel in the last few weeks, a concept I suspect he got from Bill Nye, and it would be great to find him some time-travel fiction.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Toad Tour

Much like last year, it was a rainy weekend for Toad Suck Daze. But the sun came out for our visit this morning. Here are a few of the sights of our hometown's signature event.


Dancing in Toad Suck Square is a great way to start.


There are still plenty of contestants Stuck on a Truck at Toad Suck, 71 hours in.


What should we eat, honey?


Crawfish? Alligator?


Nachos? Onion blossoms? Cheese sticks?


Popcorn? Candy apples? Cotton candy?


Whatever you choose, the proper finish to a Toad Suck meal is a fried Oreo.


Time for some rides on the midway (or is it a secret kiddie prison?)


Ride the slide!


(One at a time, please.)


Ride the motorcyles!


(The part where they do a wheelie was pretty awesome.)


Ride the Speedway!


(Sliding around the curve at high speed was by far the biggest hit of the day. It looked so fun I kinda wished I could ride.)


One more ride, and our Toad Bucks will be all gone.


Let's make the most of it!


On a scale of 1 to 10, Archer gave our visit a 7. (He was disappointed we didn't play any carnival games.) Cady Gray gave it a 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times ... (Archer: "Just use a scale of 1 to 10, please.") Success!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

New friends

Whenever Cady Gray heads out to school, I ask her if she wants a family member in her backpack. That's what she calls her collection of stuffed toys, especially the amigurumi I knit her back in February and a few other select favorites.

Well, now the family has a new member. And it's all thanks to Cady Gray's own ingenuity. Read all about it in today's post at Toxophily.