Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I've been a bad non-posting blogger. Nothing horrible, just mostly work stuff bogging me down. I also have trouble writing about life when I'm happy, preferring to reverberate with the feeling of fulfillment than analyze it. However, I realize that I am not keeping up my end of the moral contract to provide a certain amount of productivity-killing, mind-absorbing writing and so I'll endeavor to make amends.

But first, I thought I'd give everyone the giggles by highlighting some awesomely bad writing about sex:,6000,1652812,00.html

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Not exactly random thoughts...

I'm sure these are connected, but I'm still a little too sick to figure out how, so I'll hang them out and let others connect the dots. Two "teaching begins at home" thoughts, then a broader "hmmm"

1) Don't fault a kid for being overly critical of her playmates when she's basically parroting something you said. I get frustrated about Kid's tendency to focus on the problems in relationships, the minor slights, the exhausting litany of "and then Little Boy X karate chopped me in the arm AGAIN." I listen. I advise. If I sense bullying, I discreetly observe and intervene if necessary. But I also realized last night as she launched into an extended dissection of the behavior of a kid she
swims with that I had provided her with an appalling unmerciful example of how to talk about another human being. Naturally, rather than taking responsibility, I initially tried to hold her accountable and confused her. (Yes, another wonderful
moment in my parenting history.) Now I wonder how I go about slowly repatterning my own speech (and hers) into
a less judgmental frame. God, sometimes I wish I had an "idiotic pronouncements I have made" wiper.

2) Maybe it wasn't the smartest thing I ever did to start reading Kid this very gripping story about a young ballerina
caught in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War...because we all know how that's going to turn out. Duh, Communards
getting killed by the thousands after prolonged starvation. Completely age inappropriate. Right up there with
viewing La Boheme during her asthma attack. (Yet, I must admit that the author captures the human price of
war, the way that art can be used in the worst of times to ameliorate suffering and give hope, the preciousness of
a taste of hoarded marmalade after a long hunger -- it's more thought-provoking than repeated viewings of
DragonTales, but whether those are thoughts a nearly-seven-year-old needs to be pushed toward thinking is
another matter.)


3) When researching the Communards (I had the Western Civ overview, allowing me to briefly explain the movement
to Kid but without the detailed knowledge to answer the questions that she'll come up with over time), I
realize that the British pop-band of the same name is far more easy to find out about than this exceptionally
significant mass-movement of workers that prefigured both the Bolshevik Revolution and Maoism. Ok, well,
the politics of the Internet isn't really all that hard to figure out... but in speaking with
a long-time friend about this, he suggested that perhaps if a million people wanted to know about the British
pop band and a thousand people wanted to know about the social movement that shaped the most important ideological
conflict of the twentieth century, maybe one could argue that the pop band is more important. I just can't accept
that. I have staked my professional livelihood on making the argument that some stuff is more worth
knowing than others (and one should pay me to teach that stuff to you expeditiously). And the Paris Communards
(1870s) are more important than the British Communards (1980s). There. I've just out and said it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Tests of character are never good. Character isn't forged at amusement parks or birthday parties, but rather in emergency rooms and dark nights of the soul. I mentioned in a previous post a student who is facing a test of character and I wanted to brag a little bit about her, although she will never see this.

JumpShot is an academically underprepared student from a rough social background. A lot of drugs, violence, and death cloud her personal history before she came to our school. She's a tough girl with a lightning quick break, a low cross-over dribble, and a relentless court attack that gets her in foul trouble on the floor. (I love basketball and have watched her
play with great delight.) Perhaps because of her background, however, she curls up and goes into deep denial when
anything is going wrong around her. She withdraws and disengages at the first sign of adversity, as if she is drawing
a curtain between her real self and whatever might damage her ability to get through her life. She has a guarded relationship
with authority figures, accepting counsel only grudgingly. I've heard she's a challenge to coach. I know she's a
challenge to teach -- I'm not sure how to guide her toward learning because I haven't figured out what it is that she wants to know.

So we reached an impasse. She did poorly on one exam, didn't take another one because she lost confidence in herself and didn't get in touch with me directly to arrange something else. At this pace, she'll fail the class. Now I know that she's financially unable to pay for extra semesters beyond her full scholarship -- to flunk this class means, in essence, that
she'll not graduate from college. So I proposed that she stay in the class, do a compensatory assignment, and hang in there to pass the class with a D. I offer the same deal to any other student who comes to me in such a situation, but
most people who are failing drift away and never ask for the help that they are entitled to or that I could (at my option)
provide to them. Her grades everywhere else have been ok and she's not in danger of losing
her NCAA eligibility, so I really didn't know if she would take me up on the offer -- some student-athletes don't care
much about their education per se. To my great surprise (and to her coach's amazement), she has not
disengaged but has battled back, working harder than ever for the "privilege" of getting a barely acceptable
grade because she understands that her graduation is on the line.

There's no pep squad to cheer her on, no band to play a fight song, and no one's going to write her up in the
school newspaper for this victory. In fact, no one else will ever know that in her room late at night, after all the practicing
and the press conferences and the bus travel and the game itself, she's playing a little one-on-one with Benjamin Franklin. And she's taking him to school.

The bright side and how to look on it...

I'm in the middle (well, I hope, toward the end) of a bout with flu. As deathly illnesses go, this one wasn't bad. A night of upchucking and other assorted unpleasantness followed by a lot of dozing. Today, I have fatigue, muscle soreness, and stomach cramps, but nothing dramatic or particularly sympathy-attracting. I feel well enough to write, so I guess I'm going to make it.

Having an unscheduled intermission in the busiest month of the school calendar makes some things clear that I lose sight of, and for that I am grateful.

1) I'm very responsible. Even when I knew (around noon) that I was getting sick, I quickly drew together a plan for
my Monday afternoon classes that would convey the concepts in half the time, ran out to get groceries, and otherwise
had the foresight to batten down the hatches. I often feel that I lack forethought, that I'm disorganized, that I'm
not as committed as some of my colleagues. I think I'm being too hard on myself.

2) My students will survive, and it's even good for them, to be less dependent on me. Of course, everyone would like
immediate feedback on everything they do. That's what moms are for. But I am not a mom to 100 people simultaneously.
So if they must wait until Monday for exam results -- even if it means that they are inconvenienced by coming to
a regularly scheduled class before Thanksgiving break that they would otherwise cut -- that is ok.

3) I do a hell of a lot of work around the house every day. Boy, does that become clear when I completely stop doing
stuff for a day. Dishes pile up. Beds unmade. Clothing unwashed. Toys scattered everywhere. The house today
looks like it received a direct hit from a crap bomb.

4) Kid is a pretty wonderful child. I couldn't drive yesterday (the local school district won't transport her to the Montessori, which is in another district), so she had to stay home "to take care of Mom." She filled water glasses, played dolls,
painted a gazillion Christmas ornaments, and amused herself for the whole day doing math problems and reading
books to be quiet so that I could sleep this one off. It's true that only children are often pressured to grow up
quickly and I think that I've been guilty of asking her to take on some responsibilities that other children
her age don't have to manage -- she cleans her room, she takes care of the catbox, she sets the table and
cleans her place at the table, she sorts the laundry and helps fold and store her clothes, she sweeps the kitchen
floor with a broom and dustpan while I do the dishes, and so forth. At a time of
petit crisis, however, she was able to help out in a way that many children her age could not have done. And for
that I am very grateful. (Of course, some of the things like toy pick-up that she does only grudgingly and
under direct supervision slipped entirely. So what.)

This unexpected gift of time has given me a chance to do some task organizing (I'm also a listmaker!) and
I'm feeling more confident about how I'm going to manage the bulk of work looming before me in the
next month. I've got a brief window after the immediate grading round is done in which to do my own
work and I've committed myself to try to finish this article that I'm working on and get it off to a
journal before the end of the year. It's harder for me to let go of work, I think, because I have been
a scholarly journal editor and thus I know the standard of writing that will cut it.

Friday, November 11, 2005


As an addendum to the recent posts on plagiarism, I thought it was interesting that all five of my departmental colleagues
believed I blew it by not crucifying the guy immediately. I must explain that I love my colleagues. They are devoted teachers, talented researchers, generally great human beings. We share a commitment to progressive politics and action. I genuinely look forward to going places with them socially. I guess that is why it surprises me so much that we could be so far
apart on this issue. Now I feel like I've let the side down by not lowering the boom for knowing dishonesty. I'll really have to give this one more thought.

And while I'm thinking, I have to come up with a way to make amends to the whole school for flunking the only bright spot in one of our college's many struggling sports programs. JumpShot faltered, I have tried to help, the coach has been completely supportive of getting her to extra study sessions and so forth, but JumpShot didn't show up for the test or the make-up. That's the sound of the buzzer -- game over. I hate it that she may have lost her only opportunity to go to college. I hate that we live in a world in which young women like JumpShot arrive at mediocre schools which will use them to draw the crowds for a year or two. Coaches will run them ragged with 6 am practices, withhold study time from them in the form of weekend "team retreats," hold drill until the athletes can barely stay awake in class, and then send these academically challenged students packing when they can't make NCAA grade requirements. If they came in with great study skills -- and to be fair, her teammates have come and gone through my class and have been fine -- that would be one thing. Recruiting kids not ready for college academics and then putting them through a regimen seemingly designed to guarantee their
failure...well, that's just the system in which we're all trapped here. (The real joke is that we're not a Div I school. The glory of the game is about all these kids play for...)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Appointment with a plagiarist

Blame it on my mother, who always tried to make the discipline instructive. I didn't send the kid Deanward but
kept him under my thumb and made him rewrite the paper. We didn't have an extensive conversation. I told him
that I needed to speak with him privately after he turned in his exam; he had about five minutes to sweat it out
while others filed out of the room. I told him that I'd caught him plagiarizing and he said "Uh....un-huh." And I
told him that he had two choices: he could proceed to the Dean's office or he could show up at my office prepared
to outline a wholly original paper Thursday at 1:30. Unsurprisingly, he chose the latter. Our meeting today went
smoothly. He confessed that he knew what he had done was wrong and knew why it was unacceptable; he led
with an apology, which demonstrates that he's smarter than his actions had indicated. And we quickly laid
out a perfectly satisfactory paper, studded with evidence that he gathered from the book he hadn't read before
last night, and he's got a Writing Center appointment for tomorrow afternoon. He's agreed to turn in the
paper on Saturday and thanked me again as he left. So he might be a total bullshitter. He might know what's
expected in such situations and switched to default groveling mode. But...I don't
have to be his moral compass. I have to teach him to write and analyze documents. To do that, he's got
to actually do some work -- something that would not be accomplished by a trip to the Dean.

So maybe I'm a big wuss for not nailing his head to the wall as was my first inclination. On reconsideration,
though, I've begun to think that cheating students sometimes just need to be made
to face their fears of writing failure and realize that they can succeed on their own steam.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Hammer of Death.

I'm an easy-going teacher. Not an easy-going person -- my partner reads this and he'd know I was lying if I claimed that -- but a relaxed and generally happy teacher. There's only one thing that makes my eyes cross and steam shoot out my ears and relentless hell-hounding ensues: plagiarism. Intentional blatant plagiarism, the kind that suggests "she doesn't know what she's doing and she'll never figure out that this is downloaded directly from Wikipedia." I go mental and it really ruins a part of my day. Today I got such a paper -- and remember, the other 40-odd were maybe not fabulous, but were honest attempts to do the work -- and I flipped. When a first-year student starts telling me detailed ethnographic information that was not in the class materials, stuff that I would have to look up, well, naturally I do. And nearly always, I discover a badly paraphrased download. This one would have been a crappy paper even if it had not been lifted from the unattributed work of other scholars. The kid confused an army forming in England with one forming in the British colonies -- you would have thought that the lack of a monarch in Boston might have been a clue here -- and misindentified the winner and loser of the military engagement we'd spent all week discussing. Where does one start? With the fear of doing poorly that drives nearly all these episodes? With the lack of honesty and willingness to gain an undue advantage over one's classmates? With the cluelessness about how a good cheat might actually look?

To make things worse, I've learned to be very explicit about the eligible sources one can use on my papers. I also carefully explain what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and what happens when one is caught doing it. (Fail the paper, sent to the Dean, etc.) And I note that I'm a professional researcher by trade -- if they can find it, I can find it. So students have ample warning. Why why why?

I will be talking to him on Wednesday, after he finishes another exam. (Don't want to freak him out before his exam. Is that being kind or stupid?) These conversations usually go badly and I dread them. Students here deny deny deny even when you've got the print-out from the site they've used. Downloading from the internet, you see, is just using "facts" floating freely in the ether, like Melville's loose fish. The idea that someone creates those entries, orders details into narrative, and that this is no more acceptable than lightly rewriting an encyclopedia article...that seems lost on desperate belligerent students who see their semester spiraling down the drain. I lose all patience quickly and pack them off to the Dean. In an ideal world, I'd have the time to insist that they do the work correctly, themselves, again. But I'm lucky to be getting 4 hours of sleep a night these days and redeeming the lost lambs has to be someone else's work. I've got 48 others in my flock that deserve all I can give them and that's who I'm got to concentrate on serving.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Turquoise blue with spangles....

Kid and I went to see some Chinese acrobats today. I don't use the word "wow" much, but I must have said "wow" thirty times during the performance. The human body, properly trained, can do such incredible things. And as I've mentioned before, it's a lot of fun to take Kid places because everything interests her. She has an extensive set of pint-sized acquaintances (the Montessori mob was out in force at this event) with whom she can compare lost teeth and
shoe styles, she has the imagination to easily turn the red velvet stage curtains into a sumptuous dress with which
to dine with a prince, and she makes lucid observations about small stuff that I might otherwise miss. The show was geared toward entertaining children -- very fast-paced, lots of humorous interludes, and costumes in vivid hues.

As I sat there watching (and had the double pleasure of watching Kid's enjoyment), I thought about what a changed world we live in from when I was a child. I remember Nixon going to China, the first sustained glimpses of Maoist crowds thronging through the streets on bicycles in their drab jackets. I so clearly recall the Wide World of Sports broadcasting the acrobats as a major TV event, which I watched in rapt amazement. The children, so serious. The adults, so restrained and precise. I can see it in my mind in Kodakchrome colors, hear the tinny jangle of unfamiliar Chinese music blared at martial volumes
in the theatre where the cameras rolled. The thought that I would be able to drive down the street and see such a troupe --
or a Russian circus, or have my bagel served to me by a Vietnamese man only a few years younger than me -- well, it's amazing to me because at the time, the Cold War seemed like just the way things were and were always going to be. As I look at the delight on the faces of all the children in the audience, I am struck by a sense of hopefulness and a measure of change. Ok, so the world right now is bleak and our current administration at the federal and state level drives me nuts. But something wonderful happened within my lifetime to connect (at least in a tiny way) two groups of people who would never have gotten to see each other face to face thirty years ago. Maybe by the time Kid is old enough to really dance, we'll even
start allowing Cuban dance bands back into the country.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Home and Work. (That really should read "Work and Work")

Today is a soup day. Today is a baking bread day. Today is laundry and vacuuming and dusting and preparing for the weekend day. Today is a raking day. Today is a sorting day. Today is a bill-paying, where did all the money go, robbing Peter to pay Paul and Sam and Bob day. Today is a mopping and getting the dust-collecters out of Kid's room day, which means that it's also a "figure out where to put this stuff and I don't mean dump it on the front porch" day.

But, today is also a grading day. And a planning day. And a meeting day. And a teaching/tutoring day (the better to forestall more meetings with crying students later next week). And a writing lecture day. In other words, a more than full day
at the office before anything gets touched in the house.

And finally, today is a take Kid to the library day. And go swimming with her day. And maybe try to get in one more walk in the leaves before it gets cold and laugh about her awful Friday because Fridays are always for some reason more
socially difficult (maybe all the kids are tired). And finally it will be a "watch a movie in a clean house with the candles lit and their glow making a dull reflection on the surface beneath them" night.

I know that I won't get it all done, and even if I do, there will be no brass band and Congressional commission to award me my "most excellent mother/scholar" medal. But it would be nice, on these last gold days of fall, to be a little less obligated.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Dear Christian Neighbor...

I think you meant well. After all, you are firmly convinced that a sincere conversion to Christ guarantees eternal paradise and that everyone who has not made an overt commitment within your church is damned to eternal torment. You feel compassion and urgency to gather the lambs. I know this, you see, because I've read the Bible too. In fact, my kid and I attend church regularly -- just not your church -- so I can understand the impulse. So I'm sure you acted in good faith when you dressed your four small children up as archangels and handed them all lightsabers to guard the portals of your home on Halloween. And I believe and hope that you didn't mean to inflict any pain on my child as you instructed your kids to pass out scary Christian-themed comic books to her instead of candy.

After all, you had no way of knowing that our family has experienced more than its share of death and suffering this year. Well, you could have known, had you bothered to come over, or even said hello. But you are busy being a good Christian and I know that it takes a lot of time to live out one's witness so I don't really expect you to take that part about loving thy neighbor too seriously. And you had no way of knowing (well, you might have) that my kid is currently struggling with health issues that she doesn't fully understand and that all the lights on in the house at all hours of the night indicates that maybe none of us are doing too well over here. And I really don't hold you responsible for the fact that we just watched La Boheme; that was my thoughtless bad, to watch an opera about a frail tubercular heroine who dies
at the end of the show in the same week that my child is learning all about what it feels like when her lungs quit working well. So you aren't at all to blame for the fact that now every time Kid's hands are cold, she assumes she's about to die and begs for a muff.

However, you might have paused for a moment, just for a tiny unself-righteous moment, before you decided to fob off "The Little Princess" onto my impressionable six-year-old. In which a little girl with an unspecified lung disorder dies, but not before coming to Christ and bringing her whole family to a due understanding of Christ's awesome smiting power. I would call you up for some support when she has screaming terrors in the night, but you haven't exactly been so available except in the judging and condemning department.

We welcome your prayers. But from here on out, you can keep your pamphlets to yourself.