Small Demon

Autumn

 Autumn  River Notes, Teaching  Comments Off
Sep 172009
 

Our bedroom window looks out over the river, though this time of year the leaves of the maple trees mostly screen our view of the water. This morning I woke around six-thirty and looked out at the trees bathed in soft morning light. The leaves are turning orange now, though there is still quite a bit of green, especially by the water. I could hear Canada geese making a racket over by the island — really a sandbar with some low bushes on it — near the bridge that carries the highway over the river a half mile down stream from us. It is fall. Tonight we built the first fire of the season in the woodstove.

At school I have been reading tenure files and writing tenure letters, teaching, meeting with two groups of independent study students, teaching my classes. I have also volunteered for a couple of departmental committees, though I am trying to be a little less involved in such work than I have been in the past and am not serving on any university-wide committees. Amazingly, with a couple of retirements this year, I will be among the most senior members of my department. I’m enjoying my teaching this term, though yesterday my poetry students sat on their hands and looked down at their books, giving every evidence of not having read the assigned work. They’ll be getting a quiz on Monday. Same as it ever was.

Later: Why give them a quiz? It is what it is. Why impose my authority that way? Doesn’t it ruin the poetry? Well, I say in reply to myself, they can’t get the poetry — the real juice of it that I love and believe they might love — if they don’t read the poems.

Feb 012009
 

This site, which used to be funny, has become a leper colony of bitterness & bad writing. And anyone who would put up a link to a David Horowitz book  on the site (without balancing it with this text or this one) simply does not have the best interests of the teaching profession in mind. I used to write things for RYS from time to time, not now. Somehow, the people whose joy in teaching motivated their anger at idiocy in academe have been filtered out, leaving at RYS only people so devoid of feeling they defend rape jokes. Or make rape jokes.

Later: Apparently, the “joke” has been removed from the site.

Dec 132008
 

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]
Dec 112008
 

At the end of each semester, our departmental majors present the work they have done in their required research seminar. The subjects are wide-ranging because we are an interdisciplinary department the focus is on research methodology rather than subject matter. Earlier this week I attended this semester’s presentations. I had to leave a bit early, so I did not get to see every student present, but I was struck by something I had not noticed in previous semesters: Our students tend to speak almost exclusively in their research from the discourses of power. They are unable to distinguish the normative claims embedded in supposedly descriptive language. One student, a Business double major, presented her research on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), taking employers’ objections to provisions of the law as natural and just while dismissing provisions that allowed employees flexibility in managing medical leaves as “difficult to keep track of.” Another began her presentation of South Korean business conglomerates with a quotation from a journalist that contained the phrase “the more orderly Western mind” & though that phrase was mostly window-dressing, she took the behavior of the paternalistic, hierarchical, authoritarian business structures of the chaebols as natural, at least for Korea. It is this assumption of the naturalness of existing orders & systems that really struck me this time around. We need to do a better job teaching critical thinking in the research seminar.

Oct 282008
 

That’s Rate Your Students for those of you not in the know. Started by a frustrated college professor in response to the site that shall not be named, RYS allows academics to tell horror stories about their students, from the precious snowflake who just can’t possibly get anything less than an A to the smelly athlete who stinks up the whole classroom. It’s a non-academic site for academics. The stories and responses, posted anonymously, come from academics all over the US — kind of a national barroom where faculty meet at the end of the week. Actually, I think more students should read the site — it would provide them with the clarity of a different perspective. For faculty, well, diatribe and invective are useful psychological techniques — the purpose of RYS is to keep our heads from exploding. At least in public.