Quiet Biking at Night

Last summer I bought an old van with enough space in the back for my bike, which I started taking with me to work this semester, so I could ride it across the UNLV campus on the days I teacher there. It has saved me a lot of the rushing and running I’ve had to do from parking to classroom for over a dozen years, but even better, it has allowed me to simply spend more time on my bike.

One of my favorite things about the fall semester is the atmosphere on that beautiful campus on any November night–most everyone else has already gone home by the time my evening classes get out, and the trip back out to my car was always very quiet, cool, and pleasant. Now, getting to do that on a bike, it’s even better.

One night last month, I did that ride while listening to the soft, luminous Lou Reed track, “Revien Cherie.” Bikes rides have rarely been sweeter.

Speaking of, I spent one afternoon in October riding my bike home across town from my day job, listening to the live stream of Celtic music from Thistle Radio. That was also an enjoyable time, and a little memory worth having.

Life is really good.

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C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)

 

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In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading

“Rigorous Opportunities Throughout”

Today, I attended a teacher orientation at UNLV, prior to English 101 classes starting next week. Department leaders showed some slides, and one of them included the phrase “rigorous opportunities throughout.”

The phrase immediately struck me. Each word has the letter O twice. In the first word, they’re separated by one letter, in the second by two letters, and in the third by three.

That felt noteworthy to me.

Salvador Dali and More at UNLV’s Barrick Museum

The Marjorie Barrick Museum at UNLV is celebrating its 50th anniversary with three cool new exhibits. Since I walk past it all the time and it’s free, I figured I should check them out. The most interesting one to me is the collection of Salvador Dali illustrations of classic literature.

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I knew right away I’d like this room! Tangential anecdote: back in my 2nd or 3rd year teaching, I thought it would be funny to put a sign with this quote over my classroom door. My principal disagreed and made me take it down.

The illustrations are to each volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Boccaccio’s Decameron. Each display gets turned to new pages twice weekly, so I suppose I’ll drop back in each time I’m on campus the rest of this semester. Go a minute out of my way to see more original Dali work up close? Yes, please.

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Forcing Students To Revise Their Writing

My college classes this last semester had some of the best writers I’ve ever had in English 101. I felt very lucky to get to work with them. But there was one thing about those two classes that irked me to no end throughout our first two big essay units: no matter what I did, they wouldn’t revise their work.

I marked specific things on their papers and told them what to do to improve them, but much of that advice was ignored on subsequent drafts. And when I gave general feedback about writing style and missing elements, nothing in the next draft reflected that at all.

Few things are as frustrating for an English teacher as seeing their careful commentary on student work completely ignored by those students.

I even integrated some basic revision exercises into our classwork to remind them of (introduce them to?) the mechanics and mindset of revision. I labored the point that first drafts are never good enough–that strenuous attention to perfecting work is a must in any endeavor.

Finally, after the midterm, I decided to launch a nuclear attack on the subject, and after returning the first draft of their third essay project, I gave them these directions:

For the revised draft due next week, you must take the first draft and revise it as follows:

Choose any two or three of the five articles given below. Incorporate an analysis and discussion of each of them (as per the original directions) into your existing essay draft. HOWEVER, you may not add any new paragraphs–that total must not change–nor can you just add new sentences to the ends of existing paragraphs. The new material must be smoothly integrated into the existing essay–the commentary from the first draft must be revised to also address the new material.

There must be new material in *every* paragraph of this revised draft.

BUT, this new draft must also be no longer than the original first draft–this means that some material from the first draft must be condensed and/or eliminated, and what you add will have to be succinct.

Yes, that’s a cheap, sneaky way to micromanage their progress, and I hated doing it, but it did get results. The next drafts were substantially different, and they were even better. Now I just have to hope that as they go through future classes, and the rest of their lives, they keep the lesson in mind and continue living it.

“More Analysis, Less Commentary”

This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.

 

At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  Continue reading

My 2012 NCAA Tournament Brackets

I know we want to see UNLV get a crack at Duke, but the way we’ve been playing lately, we’ll be lucky to scrape past Colorado, and I can’t believe we’ll get past Baylor.  The rest is open for discussion.

Looks like San Diego and New Mexico should represent the conference quite nicely.

Fall Finals Freshmen Follies

I had some spectacular deja vu two weeks ago as my college classes were studying for finals.  I took them down to the building’s huge main lobby, where I hung butcher paper on the walls, with titles I wrote in the center, based on the major units of the semester.  I broke them into teams, gave them markers, and asked them to make diagrams of major points, themes, and other relevant information from throughout the last few months.  They spent a few minutes at each station, and then rotated to review and build on each other’s work.

My classes this semester were English 98, a remedial class for those whose test scores don’t qualify them to start school with English 101.  They are all freshmen.  Now, many of these students are decent, responsible, talented young people who go on to have great college careers.  But many are not.  And it is during activities like this that I hear grumbling and whining.  Actually, I hear that in almost every class almost every day.

Here’s where the deja vu comes in.  During this review session, a group of four upperclassmen walked by and, observing what we were doing, came over to talk to me.  Continue reading

Defending UNLV’s New Freshman Orientation

Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that UNLV will begin a new class next year, a required freshman orientation course.  The class looks like a seminar designed to acclimate students to college life and work, focusing on the purposes of higher education and the skills required to succeed there. 

A local talk radio host ripped into it this morning, and the comments under the RJ story are universally negative.  But here’s why they’re all wrong. 

If this seems like a dumbing down to anyone, consider the caliber of students we now work with.  The decade-plus long experiment in Nevada with the Millennium Scholarship has filled our campuses with students who barely squirmed out of high school, who did it with lowered standards, and who now come to college with little financial investment of their own in it.  Many simply do not have the background to succeed here.  If UNLV wants to reduce its abysmal drop out rate, such remedial training is necessary.  Who can fault us for giving our students  the foundation they need? 

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A Response to The New Yorker About Writing and Literature at UNLV

The New Yorker just ran an excellent essay looking at some thorny educational issues: why do so many people go to college today?  Are they getting much out of it?  Should college be different?  The author sympathetically looks at different angles to these issues, and addresses recent ideas and research on them.  At one point, though, to illustrate a section where he debates the value of liberal arts training for vocational majors, for writes:

Still, students pursuing vocational degrees are almost always required to take some liberal-arts courses. Let’s say that you want a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management, with a Beverage Management major, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. (Hmm. I might have taken a wrong turn in my education somewhere.) To get this degree, U.N.L.V. requires you to take two courses in English (Composition and World Literature), one course in philosophy, one course in either history or political science, courses in chemistry, mathematics, and economics, and two electives in the arts and humanities. If your professional goal is, let’s say, running the beverage service at the Bellagio, how much effort are you going to put into that class on World Literature?

Since I’ve actually taught World Literature to business majors at UNLV, please let me offer an answer. 

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School Budget Limerick

Every semester, I have to fill out a form for my part-time night job at UNLV to advise them of my availability for the next semester.  The form has a box at the bottom for comments.  A while ago, I randomly filled it in with “I like pie,” an inside joke my daughter and I had (responding to any such request for feedback with the bland statement, “I like pie”). 

The semester after that, I filled it in with a tough clue from a crossword puzzle I was working on, asking for help.  The department secretary emailed me later that day with the answer. 

Since then, I’ve tried to put increasingly silly things there.  For the last two semesters, I’ve used that space to compose brief medieval legends about Sir Huston, a crusading itinerant knight who sets out on quests against illiteracy and substandard compositional skills at the behest of the royal goddesses of Castle English (my supervisors, of course–a little sucking up never hurt). 

But as I turned in my current form today, I wanted, for some reason, to write a limerick.  As my goal with these random scribblings is to amuse, I thought a poem about our budget crisis might be cute.  Thus, this:

There once was a teacher named Jamie
Who said, “This is fun, and they pay me!”
Then the government said,
“Work for much less instead.”
He replied, “Oh, your jokes, they just slay me!”

 

Logical Fallacies and “Asians in the Library”

An excellent teaching moment came my way yesterday.  My English 101 class spends the last half of the semester doing a unit on persuasive writing, and the textbook has a whole section on logical fallacies.  In addition to a dry review of them last night, I ended class with something a little more unique and practical. 

I told my classes about the already-infamous “Asians in the Library” video that a girl at UCLA did a couple of weeks ago, and then showed it to them.  As we watched, we stopped it often so we could identify specifically which logical fallacies she was committing.  It was hilarious, controversial, and really drove the point home–the world is full of people who make stupid arguments, and we have the tools to deflate them. 

On a more serious note, for someone like me who truly believes that racism is a thing of the past, a relic that’s been relegated to only the most extreme fringes of society, no matter how loudly some professional grievance-mongers continue to crow about it, it’s really disturbing to hear something every now and then like this that shows us that there really is still some serious racism out there.  I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t think of any way to view this video with a charitable explanation–this young lady just simply comes across as an ignorant bigot. 

My notes on her logical fallacies are after the jump; see how many you can spot!

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NCAA Tournament Brackets

My NCAA Tournament brackets are at left.  A little early, perhaps, but I think they’re all solid. 

I have my local team, UNLV, beating Illinois this Friday, but then falling to Kansas on Sunday (much like last year).  For that matter, I think Kansas will take the championship this year, beating out defending champ Duke in the final. 

BYU will make it to the sweet sixteen, where I predict they’ll fall to Florida.  Mountain West Conference winner San Diego State will do a little better, getting to the elite eight before Duke takes them down. 

I got my chart here, by the way.  Steve, you got your brackets to put up here?