Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Teacher's Field Trip

“I wouldn’t let Pete Rose use my bathroom or anything, but I think he should be in the Hall of Fame.”
--Sarah Bunting, Baseball & Lit Conference

This week’s classes were cut short by a Friday conference on Baseball and Literature. Since I wrote my Master’s thesis on several baseball novels where I examined the ways in which the baseball star is presented as an archetypal hero mirroring ancient champions like Achilles and King Arthur, I feel it’d be irresponsible and lazy of me not to present at this conference. Also, the conference is at one of the schools I teach at. And my thesis directors are the organizers. I don’t mean to sound like my participation is forced. It isn’t. It’s just implicit that I will produce something to present, an act I am very proud to perform.

Ah, the academic conference. A reunion of sorts where like-minded men and women gather to discuss, sometimes debate matters that deal specifically with their fields of interest. Conferences are a good excuse to travel and socialize. The culture of the conference often mirrors the content, which in turn, mirrors the people drawn to the particular content. For example, a Virginia Wolf conference is (from secondhand accounts, not firsthand experience) a bit stuffy and slightly snobbish. Questions after a presentation resemble declarations of what the presenter got wrong. Consequently, a pop culture conference is a little more convivial. Questions are, in fact questions, and post-presentation discussions are rarely intended to be an informal game of Trivial Pursuit.

I loved Mrs. Dalloway, by the way.

So as it has been for the past 3 years I’ve been involved with it, the conference went well. The keynote speaker was Dr. Harriet Hamilton, a professor at Alabama A & M whose father played in the Negro Leagues. The main speaker was “Mudcat” Grant, a former 20 game winner for the Cleveland Indians who roomed with important figures like Larry Doby and Curt Flood. Grant spoke about his experiences playing during segregation and about learning how to pitch.

My paper was not as interesting. That said, it was on the 20th century shift from the boxer to the baseball player as the preeminent American sports hero worked well. Only about a page of it came from my thesis. The rest was new material where I discussed Harry Stein’s Hoopla, which I mentioned only briefly in my thesis’ conclusion.

Conferences are the key to establishing and maintaining contacts. They also allow us to stay current on the latest ideas in our field. This Friday, I was able to hear some new takes on baseball’s usage in academia. And I was informed of a position opening at a school in Alabama (and encouraged to apply).

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Argument is Your Opinion

"The gap between what someone tells you and what you know [to be] true--that's where the jokes are."
--Bill Maher, "Religulous"

The beauty of words is that, if arranged correctly, they can convey thoughts and moods from one person to another. The challenge comes in making the listener’s ears and mind hear and understand what you’re trying to convey. I find this to be especially true with students. This week, I’ve been meeting one-on-one with my students about their research argumentative essays. I was amazed at the number of them who, instead of presenting arguments on a specific issue, wrote reports on their topics. For example, if they wanted to write about abortion, they were to pick a side and argue that side, not merely tell me what it is and the many ways it can be done.

When I mentioned this to them, they said, “oh, so you want me to write my opinion?” That one word opinion conveyed to them what we’d spent the whole first part of the semester talking and testing about. I kept wondering to myself, “what did they think I meant by persuasion and argumentation?” What did they think I meant by “argumentative essay?” What did they think I meant by “take a side on a particular issue?” I think part of the communication gap stemmed from 2 words, one I used and one I didn’t.

The first was “research.” No matter what I said leading up to or after it, their idea of a research paper did not extend beyond being an informative essay. The second word was “opinion.” For some reason, “argumentative,” “persuasion,” or “rhetorical” does not resonate with students like the word “opinion.” From now on, when I teach argumentative essays (especially research ones), argument and opinion will be ubiquitous. I want the words to be inseperable in their minds.

Relearning connotations takes time. A word like “rhetoric” sounds so ancient and foreign that they’ve probably never really bothered to think much about its meaning, and “argument” is connected so deeply with verbal fighting that shaking loose these mindsets can’t be easily done in a semester. Likewise, the word opinion is so closely associated with being a position that another person can legitimately disagree with that introducing them to another word that’s already linked to a related, yet altogether different concept is no mean task. My comfort comes in that, eventually, they will get it, that I don’t have to teach them everything. Other professors in other classes are fighting the same battles, and at some point, intellectual development will occur.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What College Professors Do on Spring Break

“I remember my father saying that early in his teaching career he would ask himself at the beginning of each term, ‘Have I read enough to be a good teacher?’ And he would have to answer, ‘No, not yet.’”
--Kim Stafford, The Muses Among Us

The week of spring break, for the professor, is punctuated with very little of the merriment that their students associate with it. We still enjoy the time away from classes and students and, if we’re lucky, the campus. But it’s still filled with work; the luxury is that you get to pick the time and place to do it. This is more of a treat than it sounds.

I spent several Sbux hours grading midterms...many, many midterms. The freedom to work several straight hours on so single minded a task is not often afforded during the active parts of the semester. Strangely, I enjoyed the freedom I dedicated towards my slavish workload. I still have about 15 lit papers to grade, though.

But I didn’t just work. I visited an art gallery. I went to a bar/club (Don’t ask. Even I’m not sure why I went). I read Kim Stafford’s excellent letter/poem/essay/book on writing and creativity, "The Muses Among Us." I spent a day at the hospital supporting my father while he received a pacemaker. I wrote in my notebook. I accidentally ran over a kitten. I went to dinner w/ friends. I watched Bill Maher’s entertaining and thought provoking (yet rhetorically flawed) documentary "Religulous." I basked in one of my childhood pastimes by watching my favorite 90s action star’s latest movie: "JCVD." I participated in some beer brewing at a friend’s cookout. I ran. I watched a sextuple overtime college basketball game until 12:30 am w/ my dad. I recommended several books. I loaned a book. I went book shopping. I borrowed a book. And I answered emails from students who spent more of their Spring Break in the library than on the beach.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Midterm Curve

“As it was, I had to find some way to pass the time and trick my students into believing that they were getting an education.”
--David Sedaris, from “The Learning Curve”

As I kid, when teachers said that they learn from us, I was always a little confused because I didn’t understand how something we could say could enlighten them. But the more I teach, the more I think the teachers were referring to what they learned about teaching, not about the particular subject being discussed.

So this past week, I assigned midterms. I don’t often assign exams in writing classes, but tests, like papers, give me a clear idea of what students are and are not learning. Besides the obvious lessening of the grading load, I really get a sense of who’s paying attention and taking detailed notes.

With papers, it’s a bit easier to hide behind good word choice and solid syntax like a child with a lisp who learns to avoid “s” words. But with tests, even essay tests, I get a clearer sense of what students are actually learning, what concepts they can actually discuss intelligently.

In both my writing and lit classes, I’ve been pleased with my students’ ability to memorize and regurgitate information. Since tests (even essay tests) are less abstract than essays, students better prepare themselves for the day or reckoning, whereas with papers, they seem to prime themselves with about as much urgency as an overworked server getting the final refill on the final table of a 14 hour double shift.

Bringing the focus back to me, students generally miss the same answers on tests and generally make the same mistakes on papers as their classmates, which can highlight my errors just as much as theirs. And because of that possibility of our own failure, don’t we all grade on a curve, even if we don’t tell them?