Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Repeated Sentences

I've been reading repeated sentences all day.

It's had the effect of making me crazy and cranky, not a pleasant situation where I'm supposed to be judging 20% of a student's grade (their research papers). This is the Big Kahuna of their grade and we spend approximately six weeks of class time dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of truth, justice, MLA, reputable sources, Works Cited pages, and maybe some happiness along the way.

After reading today's batch, I've decided they spent about six hours of their time pursuing their truth, sources and the American Way. And that's a generous estimation for some papers.

When a student has gone through two library orientations (mine and the librarian's), a section on what constitutes a reputable, scholarly source, and then you have to define for them what "reputable" and "scholarly" means, you know you're in trouble. When you've told them to attach the final paper to an email and send it in, but only if it's a .doc or .docx or .rtf and you draw pictures and the international "not" symbol (red circle with a line through it) and you even put the admonition to song, after which Boyd in the front row joked and said "Don't quit your day job," and then he sent in .wps format so I had to mark him down 10 points on his Mechanics grade, do you think I felt bad about lowering his grade? (The correct answer is "no.")

I have students who get through 3 of the 4 Research Paper assignments and then drop the class, because we are a poor college district and we have the drop date 15 weeks into the semester (where Big U, with lots of money has theirs 5 weeks into their 10-week quarter). In fact, they've been dropping like flies around our college, and while you're glad they gave it their all, you think about how many papers you graded and conferences you held and questions you answered and wished that some of those who are a Few Tacos Short of a Combination Plate would have dropped the second week instead of the 14th.

My husband (also a professor, but over at Big U) and I know to grade the papers all in a batch because of what we call "grade creep." It's when you tend to score the first few students harshly, but then lighten up as you go. Then you norm them all, making sure you were playing fair-n-square with all of them. But today, I've had grade deflation. I've become more and more fed up with their redundant (and yes, I have to define that for some) and repetitive and inane and frankly dumb blathering in between their quoted sources. And then there's others who rarely bother with the blathering but just throw in 12 (TWELVE!) lengthy block quotes in a 7-page paper, with no introductory comments. Just the author's name, their publication, a verb and a colon and the block quote, and I'm supposed to figure it out, make the connections, do the work that the student didn't.

Okay, step away from the keyboard now, lady, and finish up the two last papers. You've saved the best two students for last, and hopefully you'll be rewarded with succinct writing, well-supported statements, and no repeated sentences repeated sentences repeated sentences.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Two quotes to get us started today. One is from Science magazine, when talking about the difference between the limestone core of Queen Nefertiti's famous 3300-year-old bust and the outer stucco skin. "Nefertiti's bust. . . is an intersection between realism and stylization," said the lead author.

And then this in my email box when I arrived home from school:

"Honestly it was not my intent to not citie my sources I did not look over my essay good enough.I will stay in the class ,and if there is anything I could do to pick up my grade please let me know.All I need is a 70 to get my degree this semster.If it dose not look like its going to happen I could use some help taking it in the summer.So if you know of a good professor let me.Thanks again for your help.It just got to me a little being so close to reaching a goal then slipping when almost there."

This is an email note from one of three students who failed their research essay because of plagiarism. The student's plagiarism was especially egregious because nearly the entire conclusion was lifted from the source, without any attempt at attribution whatsoever. This student, who is a custodian at a local high school, is a nice man with great intentions. However I'd have to say his evaluation of how he is doing in the class is certainly an "intersection between realism and stylization."

I was dreading this event today--not only telling him, but also the other two students who also failed their paper. One young woman said she didn't put quotes in because her classmate (who is well-meaning) told her that if she didn't directly quote the source, in other words, didn't use quote marks, then it wouldn't be plagiarism. Um. Wrong.

The last of the three was just sloppy, tired, sick of it all, and she knew it and I knew it. But the first student, the one who wrote me the email told me this was his 4th try through this Less-Than-101. I was reminded of that essay in Atlantic Monthly titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" (illustration above is from that article--if you haven't read it yet, you must) about the myth we impose on people that everyone should go to college, get a degree, get ahead. From the essay, by a Professor X:
"Beneath the surface of this serene and scholarly mise-en-scène roil waters of frustration and bad feeling, for these colleges teem with students who are in over their heads. . . . Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile."

I read and re-read this essay a lot. I have it saved on my hard drive. It butts up against our little community college's efforts at cheerfully urging us proffies to Retain More Of Our Students. The only way to do that, is to allow writing, like that in the above email, to be the norm. Texting as text. Sloppy scholarship as the only scholarship.

My father, who was a professor at Harvard, repeats often the line "The university is bigger than any one student." In my tiny corner of my tiny college in the tiny community where I teach, this line is my lifeline. It's the only way I can sit across the desk from an anxious student who resides in the back row of the classroom, smiling and nodding like he does get it, only he doesn't, and tell him that he has a 60% in the class, and no, I don't give extra credit work, and yes, it's very likely he'll get a D, which is neither passing, nor failing.

My classroom is that intersection between the stylization--the college brochure pictures of smiling grads surrounded by their friends--obscuring the realism of the classroom, where MLA rules, grammar conventions and research papers take their toll.

Some days the drive home is a sad one indeed.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Very cool.

My sister Susan has a review of a book in the Wall Street Journal.

Very cool.

Big People

My brain cells are scattering, just like a ripe dandelion's seeds float away in a breeze. I chalk it all up to the Research Essays from my Less-Than-101 class.

I keep reminding myself of two things, as I grade these little gems of construction, disaster and pillaging: 1) they are in college, and 2) this is Less-Than-101 so don't expect too much.

I look out at my classroom and see Big People bodies, Big People heads, Big People with Big People car payments, Big People schedules, Big People responsibilities. I'm just not seeing Big People essays, and I'm only on the third one.

It could be my own fault, as I drew from the top of the stack--yes, those are the students who who came in and sat down, saw the announcement on the board that final essays were Due Today, blanched white, gathered up their things and went upstairs to the library to do six weeks of work in 90 minutes.

I don't know how I'm going to get through this weekend of grading.

Too bad I've already eaten up the chocolate Easter bunny.

P.S. Just caught my first plagiarist. Correcting their essays take as much time as three regular essays.

P.P.S. I may have to go and buy more chocolate.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Went Down

I, like many others, have been watching Little Dorrit on PBS, a series that originally aired in England last fall. I first saw Little Dorrit, a tale written by Charles Dickens, when I was dating my husband, some twenty years ago. The movie, in black and white (I think), was in two parts and we went to the Berkeley theater for two successive Saturdays to catch the whole thing.

Like any Dickens tale, character is king. And multiple characters, for Dickens, are needed to populate his fictional kingdoms. I was very interested in Little Dorrit for her quiet ways, a life I felt like I lived as wife, mother and silent partner. And now, ready to marry again for a second time, I was putting away any visions of earthly fame and grandeur (really quite unrealistic, truthfully, given my four children) and again took on another man's name.

What struck me about the movie, other than it's sheer length, were the final narrated comments, seemingly so parallel to the life I was choosing:
"Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun's bright rays, and then went down.
Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother's care. . . Went down to [be] a tender nurse and friend. . . . They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant, and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar."

I was reminded of this from another post on Junkfood Science (another fav) about a woman named Susan Boyles from Britain. In her interview, she says she lives with her parents, never been kissed, and you can tell she has had a life much like Little Dorrit's in many ways--living quietly. If you haven't caught the video of her yet, you must, but first--read what was said about her in The Herald:
"Susan is a reminder that it's time we all looked a little deeper. She has lived an obscure but important life. She has been a companionable and caring daughter. It's people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. They make this country civilised and they deserve acknowledgement and respect. Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her talent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character."-- The Herald, April 14, 2009.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Aerial Lake by Night

Worried about my ultrasound appointment (a re-exam, triggered by my mammogram), I went on the web to look things over and look things up. Apparently there's only two categories: good and bad. The bad category, from what I could tell from the photos, looks kind of like flying over a night terrain, all the little cities and streets and streetlights a meshy web, with a meshy blob in the middle.

The good category, is the same night terrain, but with the looks of a lake in the middle of that city.

It's unnerving, really to be put in a place where no information is given to help the patient process, digest, figure out, think about, mull over the situation. As a teacher, I am used to being the Momma bird for my baby birds, gathering the information and making it palatable and digestible for the ones I am trying to teach (even though sometimes I feel like flying off and leaving the nest for good). I am used to teaching, imparting information, making myself clear, with a healthy dose of Are There Any Questions?

Any questions I asked last week resulted in the technician pointing to a well-worn piece of paper tacked to a cabinet that stated: "We are technicians only. We are not allowed to discuss patient results." Yeah, okay. Since they won't answer questions, and the paper clearly said that they hadn't sent the films up yet as it was a Radiology issue, my doctor wasn't an option. Where else could I turn?

So, properly internetted up, I went to the appointment.

I asked the tech if she could explain the process. Her hand was midway to pointing at the sign, when I said I knew she couldn't discuss the results, but some information would be helpful. I acknowledged that she wasn't in the business of diagnosis, but really, didn't we both know that patients do better when they have enough and the right kind of information? It had been a long week, I told her (trying to keep the tremor out of my voice), and somewhat stressful.

Yes, she said. Most of my mammo retakes are pretty stressed out when they get here.

Given the terse language in the recheck letter I received, it's no wonder.

During the exam, I asked her what she was seeing, craning my neck to see if I had a landscape of streets, or if there was a dark lake.
I'm not allowed to. . .
Yes, I know, I interjected. I just wondered if you could describe what you see.
I'm not allowed. . . she began again.
I know, I said.

She kept dragging the ultrasound wand, clicking on her keyboard in the dim room, making little notations on the screen.

I know if I fall apart, I said, it's better to be in the doctor's office, but I just wondered. . .

She paused, zeroing in on something. Oh, that probably won't happen, she said, then fell silent.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a lovely lake in the mesh of streets and highways. I didn't ask any more questions.

I drove home, rounding the corner to see my neighbors Tom and Dee out looking at their sprinklers. After some conversation (they're both really busy and we only catch up every once in a while), she allowed that she'd had a lumpectomy last week, and was still a little sore. She was upbeat and was soon starting chemo. We talked shop--er, breasts--and then we both moved on. Them, to their yellow spots in their lawn, and me, home to bake chocolate chip cookies.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Feeling Mortal

I read a post on a young friend's blog the other day about finding her first gray hair. My hairdresser found mine and with a tug, yanked it out of my head. I asked her not to do that again, and have tried to live, somewhat gracefully, with aging.

Until last week's double whammy.

First was the mammogram people, calling me back to schedule another appointment, not only with them, but also with the radiology/ultrasound people. This was a sobering moment, but to combat it with perfect denial, I repeated to myself the phrase, kind of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, chanting while she clicked her ruby-red heels together: "I'm not in a high risk group, I'm not in a risk group." I breastfed my children, no close relative has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I had children before age 30. Doesn't that entitle me to a little denial?

Then my doctor's office called and yes, they want to put me on statins. This one's harder to work around, as it's all invisible little something-or-others that are not cooperating with my desire to have perfect health until I suddenly fall over at around, say, at age 92 or something. (Although I reserve the chance to revise that upwards if I hit 90.)

However all this interferes with the idea that I've cultivated for a while: There's Always More Time. This is my trap, my snare, that hole that swallows me up. I have lots of time so I can do that later. I began saying this when I had three teenagers. It was like a soothing utterance as I shelved one fondly held desire after another. I can do it when they're all raised. I'll have Time. Lots of it. It's how I kept my sanity.

But the reality is that there's never any more time. I just think there is. For the Big Joke was when I finally got rid of all those pesky mouthy and crazy and wonderful teens and did have more time, I went to Grad School. I repeated the mantra, with an added clause: There's Always More Time, as soon as I finish grad school. Yes, yes. And then there was trying to find a job, which I got, which really gives me NO TIME whatsoever for lounging around and doing whatever it was I put off until later.

And the Really Big Joke comes when you finally do get time and get past all that, and you find, to your great surprise, that all those things you thought you'd do, um, you don't really want to do now. According to Oprah, it's a part of menopause. According to Erickson's Stages of Psychosocial Development, it's a natural part of the aging process--you have a different set of tasks that you take on as you age, and you leave the younger tasks behind. According to me, it's all a Big Joke. A bait and switch in the shopping aisle of life. And those trite phrases work well when it's not you trying to Seize the Day or something, and soon you'll design that great quilt, or write the All-American Novel, or photograph the one scene that the Getty really wants, only they haven't discovered you yet. You can't really blame them though, as you haven't discovered yourself yet. It's on my To Do list and I'll get to it as soon as I'm through grading these essays, and figure out what we're having for dinner, and finish up the laundry. You know. . . when I have a little more time.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Annual Peep Diorama Contest

The Washington Post runs a Peeps-inspired diorama contest. Here's three of this year's contestants. (above: Peeps-A Lot).



Saturday, April 04, 2009

Parking Lots

Boyd* sat across the table from me, having come to my office hours, held on the second floor of the library. It was his first visit, and I knew why he was there. His score on the second research paper assignment was a 9 out of 30, abysmal.

Tired of student topics like abortion, video games as a positive benefit, legalization of marijuana and way way too many papers on global warming, I changed up the schema for this class, tying into current events. "If you could have a portion of that stimulus money to engineer/fix/build/change something, what would you go after? It has to be domestic, as no American taxpayer wants their money to head overseas."

Boyd wanted to "end pollution." How? By tackling littering, global warming, car emissions, and recycling. Hmmm. Could I say this seemed to lack focus? Can I just say this is representative of his performance in this freshman comp class? Can I just he's a really sweet guy, and is WAY over his head? I relayed to him, as he sat there across the table from me, that his thesis seemed to lack focus.

"Then I'll just talk about just global warming."
"It has to be a domestic issue," I reminded him.
"Really?" He looked puzzled, really sincerely puzzled. "I didn't know that."

I did not reach across the table and strangle him. I did not even stand up with a regal flourish and order him to the elevators, down to the parking lot, into his car and to never come back to my class. I didn't even roll my eyes, which took considerable discipline.

However, I did crumble inside a little, as I've been flapping my jaws about this research paper for six weeks. I sent him downstairs to the computers, to look up on our class blog a list of subjects that he could choose from. "Think big, Boyd. Remember how much money they have in Washington to throw around."

I helped another student while he was gone, there in my luxurious "adjunct faculty office." But the chairs are nice and since it's the floor of the library where all the books are kept, hardly anyone is around to bug us.

Boyd came back up a few minutes later, a huge grin on his face. "I've got it, Professor. I know what I want to write about."
"Great! What did you choose?" I was praying for something clean and neat, as the 8 page rough draft with five sources is due in one week.
"Community Colleges. I want to write about community colleges."
"Terrific! How can all that stimulus money benefit community colleges?"

Quickly in my mind I reviewed some options that came to my mind: give me a real table that doesn't have the metal apron hanging off on one end. Buy a TV remote to go with all the TVs in our rooms. Better yet, let's have some real audio/visual/digital equipment, thinking of all my K-12 friends with their delicious technology set-up. Hurry up with the new library. Give us an adjunct office that's private. Hey, give us adjuncts a raise, since our faculty make two and half times what we do per teaching hour. I stopped myself there, for Boyd was about to tell me his ideas.

He leaned in. "Parking lots," he confided. "We need better parking lots."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Couldn't Resist This

(From a website about the toy Transformers)