Thursday, February 25, 2010

In Absentia

If you haven't heard from me much lately (and I'm well aware that you haven't), it's because I've been reading my manuscript. Again. And again. I've had it in my possession for two weeks and I need to send it back on Monday; I'm about halfway through my second reading. Since I have approximately six million chapters, this means that I'm reading a chapter or two a day. It is akin to torture, not least because I'm confronted with all of my failings. How did I let it go out with so many awkward sentences and inconsistently formatted footnotes, anyway?? And there are all kinds of errors in my Latin and Middle English!

(Yes, it's been copy-edited, but the copy editor evidently didn't see fit to perfect my prose style. Hmph!) (I'm kidding. I mean, he didn't perfect my prose style, but obviously that (a) is not his job and (b) would have really annoyed me if he had. That's my job. Or at least, it's my job to approximate perfection. But on this second read-through, I think that I'm getting a little squirrelly and starting to actually believe that I need to perfect every sentence--and that that's, like, possible.) (Oh, and it's kind of funny that the copy editor did correct my "inquiry"/"enquiry" mistakes--that's something that I'm always correcting in other people's work, but apparently didn't even notice in my own. The shame!)

So I now have a theory, though, that the purpose of forcing an author to do several rounds of edits in the final/close-to-final production stages is so that the author will never, ever want to read one word of the blasted thing ever, ever again, and thus will not lose her shit over the various imperfections that will inevitably find their way into the final book.

Because OH MY GOD I do not want to read these chapters EVER, EVER AGAIN. EVER. Not even the good bits.

(As a side note, it is interesting to me to see how my writing matured in the actual drafting of the dissertation/MS; the later chapters are written in a much livelier and more interesting style than the first ones. I've revised the hell out of the first chapter that I wrote, in particular, to try to make it less boring, but I'm not sure that I've totally succeeded. Oh Well.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Free Dissertation Topic!!!

You know what I (& TM, who actually brought the subject up) would really like to read? A cultural history of nerds.

Seriously. Are they in fact projections of American anti-intellectualism? Did they appear as a consequence of wider access to education (and, thus, with the fear of intellectual domination)? Where did they come from? Somebody write this book, quick!

(Unless, of course, it already exists. I haven't actually checked to see whether such a thing's been written. Perhaps I'll do that now.... A cursory search of Amazon says No, as does the first page of results from a WorldCat search. People! This is uncharted academic territory! --And if I'm wrong, and you know it, please tell me so that I can go read about this fascinating topic.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Composition Conundrum

The other day, TM brought home a stack of grading. As it was sitting on the kitchen table, I glanced at the top paper, as one does. It was written by a student who passed my Comp II class last year (with a C, as I recall). I read a couple of lines.

Boy howdy.

This guy has some writing problems. For reals. Grammar, spelling, even spell-check; we're talking "the"/"they" and "be"/"by" errors, not to mention your run-of-the-mill run-ons, frags, and subject-verb agreement problems.

Now, I wouldn't be surprised if this particular student had a learning disability--not because of anything else in his performance, but because I do remember that he really struggled with precisely those kinds of very basic issues. (Dyslexia? I don't know.) But I remember, too, that he was very engaged in class, had always done the homework and spoke up frequently, offered interesting insights into nearly every discussion, worked hard, revised often, researched energetically, and had great ideas for his papers. I remember that he knew he had writing problems and struggled to improve. And this, of course, is how he got a C when his writing itself was so poor: he did everything that I asked him to. He completed the assignments and developed the skills (thesis statement, citation, research, revision) that I taught him.

What I didn't do was teach him grammar. Or spelling. How, then, could I fail him for the course?

Comp is not a grammar course. We say this up front, on Day 1, and on our syllabi. We declare that we expect our students to come in with the basic skills that they need to write sentences, and that we expect them to seek additional help as they need it. Now, of course I do some grammar teaching--things like dangling modifiers and pronoun-antecedent agreement, the scourge of my life--but we do not teach subject-verb agreement, and frankly I don't know how to teach basic grammar. Besides, most of our students at least mostly don't need that. But the fact of the matter is that many of our students do need basic spelling and grammar help.

So where does that leave us? Passing students who cannot write sentences, that's where.

Now, I could, of course, fail these students (and I seem to get at least one a semester--one who actually works hard enough to pass the other tasks that we assign, anyway). But there are two problems with that. First, it seems totally wrong to fail a student for something that I am not teaching him, and that I will not teach him (because of course I figure out his problem right away, and try what I can, and send him to the writing lab, but I don't spend the semester teaching him how to spell. How do you even teach spelling??). And second, another semester of comp would do him no good, as far as I can tell. He's learning the things that we teach in comp (insofar as one can, without the basics).

What we need is a developmental or remedial course. But we don't have one, and we don't have any way to screen students for one, and we don't have anybody to teach one.

I don't know what to do.

I'm not teaching comp this semester, but I had a student who (nearly) fit this description last semester, too (he was less...accomplished in the higher-order areas than the first student I mentioned), and he got a D because he did improve a great deal and learn a lot about citations, theses, research, etc. But he can't write.

What should we do? What do you do?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Things, Glorious Things

  • After a very poky Monday and a "stern" (= kind and smiley, for I am seldom stern) lecture about participation on Wednesday, Brit Lit has become much livelier and more fun. We had a very good discussion on Wednesday, and today I organized them into four teams to stage two debates onByron (we just finished DJ Canto 1) and some of the other texts we've read. The debates were, in brief, the following: Byron vs. Wordsworth ("The Death Match") on the purpose of poetry, and Dona Julia vs. Elizabeth Bennet ("Head to Head") on sexual morality and the role of women. To tell the truth, I was really nervous about this activity, because it unlike anything I had ever tried before and I was afraid that they wouldn't be willing to be a bit silly and get into it. But lo, get into it they did, and we had a fabulous time that actually yielded some very interesting insights.
  • Insight: Willingness to be a shameless ham is helpful when one wants one's students to get into the silly activities that one has planned.
  • I have to spend all day on campus tomorrow for a big recruiting event. We start at 8 am. Why in God's name do we start at 8 am? Why in God's name do people in the Midwest do everything (like get up, eat dinner, EVERYTHING) so damn early???
  • My copy-edited manuscript came in the mail yesterday; I have less than three weeks to turn it around. I am reading it, but oh, it is not a fast process. No it is not. When do I get to retire these dusty old paragraphs?
  • I ought to be grading. It would be very very good of me to grade four seminar papers this evening. Yes. I would be very sage (in the French sense of the word) if I were to grade these four papers. Perhaps I shall dwell on that for a while.
  • The cats have been reasonably well behaved lately, although Priscilla meowed at the door at 3:45 this morning and Pertelote vomited up her breakfast in a particularly disgusting fashion on Wednesday.
  • Priscilla has a new nickname. Medievalists, rejoice: Henceforth, the talkative and MOST melodramatic cat in our house shall be called Constant Mews.
  • I laugh every time I think about it. Constant Mews!
  • Ha ha ha ha!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It was fate--it had to be

I just got to see the approved promotional copy for my book. There are two quotes: one by a scholar whom I highly esteem and who was one of the manuscript's readers, and another by a very accomplished scholar...who somehow only came onto my radar last week, when I read hir excellent study of [topic related to my current project]. Truly--one of those books that's deeply researched AND a sheer pleasure to read--fascinating and convincing.

I'm peculiarly pleased that I read hir book before seeing the quote, if only because it means that now I have two very generous statements from people whom I (already know to) look up to!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Party Time

I love my husband, and I love our evenings together. But it is kind of fun to have a night alone now and again, isn't it?

He's got a dinner thing tonight and I do not. So! Here's what's on the agenda:

Cook up a pot of spaghetti and my favorite sauce-from-a-jar (Newman's Own Sockarooni).
Eat too much spaghetti, drink wine, and watch back episodes of "30 Rock."
Throughout, cuddle kitties.
Put on pajamas and read some stuff until he gets home.

It's funny how sauce-from-a-jar seems like a special secret treat. It's so declasse: a guilty indulgence. And that just tells you something about the fantastic-fancy cooking guy I married.

A candidate for analysis?

Sometimes--like most people, I suspect or at least hope--I'll do something that's minor but kind of foolish, and maybe someone will notice and remark that it was unwise. So, like, today, trying to be helpful, I opened a colleague's office door in front of a student (we have a suite that locks from the outside; we have individual door locks, too, but most of us don't use them)--not to muck around or snoop, but just to glance at something--and later another colleague, who was there, said, "I don't like the idea of students knowing that we don't lock our doors...."

He was right, of course, but it was not a hugely big deal, since the suite is locked when no one's in there. And we certainly don't let STUDENTS poke around in others' offices (although I did find a mysterious late paper on my desk when I came in the other day--but there are other possible explanations for that, such as that a colleague (or even my husband, whose office is next door) dropped it off).

Anyway, the point is not whether I did something foolish or not--I'm willing to admit that I did, although I would add that it was also trivial--but rather that I find it extremely hard to let go of this kind of thing. I get hung up on it and find myself wanting the person who "caught" me to grant me some kind of absolution. Or else I can't think about it without working myself up into a paroxysm of self-defense, trying over and over again to convince myself that I was PERFECTLY JUSTIFIED in my behavior.

Really what I'd like is to be able to comfortably accept that I commit errors now and again and not have to grapple with this nagging guilty sick feeling. Because the other annoying thing is that the residue of regret--even for trivial things--tends to stay with me for a long time; I'll probably remember this afternoon's slip-up with shame for years.

What is it about admitting that we're (or I'm--maybe it's just me) in the wrong that's so threatening?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Improbable Questions

Brit Lit II this semester is taking an odd turn.

Things are going well, overall--don't get me wrong. We've analyzed Romantic poetry half to death and are on to Pride and Prejudice (although I always find the first day of a novel difficult in the largish survey--it feels like we're leaving so much out, and it's hard for me to be organized. Whatever, though; it'll sort itself out).

But it seems like every day I get one of those left-field questions. Or at least quasi-left-field. Like, okay, I can see why you'd want to know that, but I don't know everything, people.

This isn't necessarily a problem. But someone in Brit Lit I wrote on hir evals last semester that "sometimes when a student asks a question, [I] say 'hm' and ask the rest of the class what they think, which makes [the student] think that [I] don't know the answer" (not hir exact words, but very close). So, pedagogical blindness of the comment aside, I'm feeling a little sensitive about revealing ignorance.

Examples:
  • What, exactly, does the word "plastic" mean in the context of [a particular Coleridge poem]? Yes, I should know this. But we read like ten pages of poetry for that day, and I read past the word with a sense of what it means, and it didn't occur to me to look up exactly how he was using it. In hindsight, I should've used this as an opportunity to demonstrate OED online, but they were in small groups and time was almost up. I should also call myself out on having a "sense" of something's meaning and actually look it up, especially when I'm teaching close reading. Lesson learned.
  • To what extent is [that recent quasi-biographical movie about the author we're currently reading]* based on her real life? Dude, not much, I expect, but maybe a little. It doesn't really matter. I don't go in for biographical criticism, okay? And you shouldn't either.
    *edited to avoid Googling, since I did tell the student to find out and let us know.
and finally,
  • How common was wolf's-bane in late eighteenth-century England? I sincerely hope that my ignorance of THIS doesn't reflect badly on me, but who knows.
Anyway, I'm actually NOT an 18th/19th-century specialist, and I wish that I could tell them that, sometimes, without totally undermining my legitimacy. Because really, I am legitimate in here, even if I don't know [author's] biography in full and don't know the etymology of "plastic," or have a working knowledge of pre-Victorian botany. And yes, I will admit that I don't know, but it'd be nice not to have to do that like every day, right?