Tuesday, August 25, 2009

the Fish, writing, and classroom regulation

Stanley Fish starts a rant on something else with a rant on college students' writing proficiency.

I like Fish's columns. A pleasure to read. (And sometimes expensive; this column prompted me to buy two books. They both proved worthwhile reads, though the thoughtful "Shop Class as Soulcraft" will be kept on my shelf, whereas the disappointingly lightweight "Big Sid's Vincati" I'm sending to my brother...for him to pass on once he's done with it.)

Anyway, from today's column, two highlights:

I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence.

Yeah, me too. Every time I sit down to read students' papers. And often when reading email. And though I can't quite articulate and diagram the problems as well as Fish (perhaps a failing of my undergraduate institution's writing curriculum), I can do well enough. And do well enough to know that either my students' prior training in writing has failed them, or that the bar is set exceptionally low, or perhaps both.

I am...against external regulation of classroom practices if only because the impulse animating the effort to regulate is always political rather than intellectual.


I am especially against external regulation of classroom practices by those on the other side of the classroom from me. It strikes me that a student is in a particularly bad place to evaluate the usefulness of a course's content or the relevance of a degree's curriculum. Having thus concluded, it becomes preposterous that search committees and college administrators place so much weight on student course evaluations. But sometimes it's all we have. So we make do. Though I'm sure there's a better way. I'm afraid, however, that we're too lazy, entrenched, and (perhaps) fearful (of students, in part) to implement it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

the Chicago six

Six pounds. Five days off the bike, three of them in Chicago eating cheesecake and a bunch of other really wonderful stuff, the two days prior sitting around depressed eating a lot of ice cream. Six pounds...

Yesterday I hardly ate a thing and wasn't hungry at all. Weird.


After round three of the YBR/SMVC/SUCC Summer Smackdown yesterday--a 6.5 mile hill climb up Big Flat--I rolled over and scouted out The (Almost) Half World Championship course. You won't want to miss it. It's going to be great. (Date still pending...due to a thousand other conflicts, it's looking like we might shoot for Labor Day.)


I'm thinking I'm on the tail end of discovering this, but I have to say I enjoyed it tremendously. For my hipster Philly friends, you may be happy to know that while the hipster fixie culture in Chicago is alive and well, it's not nearly as evolved and natural as it is in Philly. You still win.

Monday, August 10, 2009

some people's (would be) president

Sarah Palin, that stalwart of reason and sense, wrote this on her Facebook page the other day:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care."

Oh. My. Word.

Notice how tricky she is, though. She hasn't said that Obama has actually proposed this "death panel" (whatever that is), which would be a lie, of course. But the language leads the reader to believe that Obama wants this weird thing (a thing so weird I don't even know where it's coming from).

Look, I can play this game too:

The America I know and love is not one in which small children are forced to watch the torture, maiming, and eventual slow and painful murder of soft, cuddly white bunnies at the hand of Sarah Palin and her 'death professors' in order to teach them the 'biology of pain economics.'

You like that? I didn't lie either.

Palin, you are the lunatic fringe. Well, a lunatic for sure. I'm merely hopeful that you stay on the fringe.

Friday, August 7, 2009

so many things...

I compose blog posts during the day, in my head. But I rarely write them.

Last Saturday, I whipped up a beauty about the ride Joel and I had on the Iron Cross course. It was a great ride (70+ mtb miles, 5+ hours), great weather, great company... And I remember having some terrific insights I thought worth writing down. But now I've forgotten.

Tuesday, I was going to write about the Tuesday Night Races, being tired, the art of the solo break, and a number of other things. But after the races I was so tired. The next day, busy.

Wednesday, I was going to write about this. And I was going to write about the trouble with using war metaphors when talking about cancer--words like "battle" and "fight." Because, in war, only death wins. And where does that leave the dead in the thoughts of the living?

Yesterday, I was going to write about my little miracle girl. Eight years-old yesterday. On her seventh birthday her oncologist told us it had better be some party. I liked that. Physicians are so obnoxiously dishonest when it comes to talking about how near death your children are. Until afterward. Then they seem to be more forthcoming, if not completely forthright. (Where do they learn this stuff, anyway? ...this inhuman distance from the painful emotional reality of life. Is it a symptom of having developed the medical gaze...the dishonesty their way shielding themselves from the pain? I guess we all have to cope.)

So this eighth birthday is something special too. Maybe more so. Her hair has grown back, wild and thick. She's grown fleshy (still an outlier as far as height and weight for her age, but proportional with a BMI in the 70th percentile). And, most significantly, has grown seven inches since transplant. Her endocrinologist, who hadn't seen her for 21 months, was in awe. (Again, an after-the-crisis display of honesty...admitting that when he saw her last he didn't expect her to grow again at all.)

Now, today, the post I wrote in my mind... Something about the ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions of parenthood. Something about the nature of joy/pain, which is to say the nature of life.

Yesterday's celebration ended abruptly around nine pm. Reuben was standing up, holding Audrey's hands. Then he dropped one hand and fell abruptly, awkwardly, twisting to the floor. It was a weird fall, but not that weird, for a baby. Babies fall all the time. But somehow this fall dislodged or jarred or otherwise upset his tumor (behind and under his right shoulder). It moved position. Bruised. Hardened.

And then there was screaming. For the next three hours. At least. Intermittent inconsolable screaming. Then some sleep. Then more screaming.

On and off again until four am, at which point I was supposed to drive to the airport to catch a flight to Chicago. Valerie didn't want me to go. She didn't want to tell me not to, but she didn't want me to go. I wasn't sure I'd be able to stay awake even for the drive to Harrisburg.

So now I'm laying on the couch, as tired as ever. The girls are playing a new computer game (Oregon Trail, a birthday present from someone who knows how much Marian loves all things pioneer). Valerie and Reuben are off to Hershey for X-rays and who knows what else. (It says something about the course of our lives that Val asked me to load a suitcase, still packed from the last hospital stay, "because who knows?") And I'm left to decide if it's worth it to try to get the airline to rebook my outgoing flight to Chicago.

And there's a cute little dog (stuffed toy) with a homemade leash tied to one leg of our piano.

And Audrey couldn't sleep last night blaming herself for Reuben's injury.

And she let me hold her as she cried herself to sleep.

And we've yet to figure out what happened to Reuben's shoulder.

And the sound of a screaming baby is the sound of my slowing going insane. It's quiet now, but the echos of insanity linger, softly reverberating inside my skull. It'll be a wonder if Val and I make it to 40.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

those darn college professors

A bunch of liberal, elite know-it-alls... Can't trust a one of 'em.

This coming fall semester, on the second day of classes, a whole bunch of upperclassmen at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania are going to walk into class, all bright-eyed and eager, only to find they're going to have to sit through 75 minutes, twice a week, of this:

I'd feel sorry for them if I were you.


The department secretary showed me this afternoon that my mug had been reduced to stock art. Here. (You may have to refresh the page a few times.) An occupational hazard, I suppose.

I'm flattered, self-conscious, and mildly disturbed.


Here it is August and I finally got around to reading my spring semester course evaluations. Under "Please describe what aspects of this course you would change," a few of my favorites:

"cancel class more often, take a break"


"The way he teaches"

I especially appreciate the last one. Very helpful.

One of the problems with course evaluation comments is, of course, their anonymity. About some students' opinions I couldn't care less. But other students--students I've come to respect for one reason or another--I really want to know what they think. If I get a complaint that assignments aren't well explained, for example, that's much more meaningful feedback coming from a a student I know to be attentive and engaged than if it comes from someone who rarely comes to class. As the saying goes, context is everything.

Two other observations from course evaluations. First, there are a lot of college students who don't like to read (one wonders what these students' expectations for college were, and why). Second, I consistently get better evaluations in my earlier classes than I do in my later classes.

I'm not sure how to explain this second observation. It may be that I simply get tired through the day, and don't conduct class with as much energy the second or third time as I do the first. But I always feel better about the presentation the second time around--where I stumbled in the first hour, I'm clean and rehearsed in the second. Maybe too rehearsed?

I wonder if others' evaluations show the same thing. If so, it would seem that students are better off the fewer classes their professors teach. The professors, no doubt, would be better off too. Win-win.