Friday, August 20, 2010

Destiny! Destiny!

No escaping that for me! Destiny! (Start at 2:36)

My mom and stepdad came to visit for a few days this week. Along with half of my beloved horse Ziggy's ashes, she brought a bunch of memorabilia from my childhood. Old newspaper clippings about my 3 appearances in the Akron Beacon Journal Regional Spelling Bee (1983-85), report cards from kindergarten etc which remarked on my intelligence and my difficulty with organization of my workspace (smart and a packrat with tendencies toward slobhood--some things never change).

One thing that caught my attention was my California Achievement Test report, its dot-matrix print barely legible on the yellowing paper. Date: 10/82 and I quote:
This student's achievement in basic skills may best be summarized by looking at the total scores. It can be seen that her total scores are better than approximately 98 percent of the nation's 6th graders in reading, 95 percent in language, 70 percent in mathematics, and 92 percent in total battery. 

She has strengths in selecting words having the same meaning, selecting words having the opposite meaning, using words with more than one meaning, identifying subjects and verbs, identifying complete/incomplete/run-on sentences. 

She has weaknesses in addition, division, multiplication, subtraction, geometry, and measurement.

Some things never change, I guess. I'm still terrible at math. When I took the GRE general test for grad school in 1992, I scored in the bottom 5th percentile in the quantitative section, and 92nd percentile in the verbal section.

What floors me is that when I was 11, I had apparently already started down this road to becoming a professor. My love of books and reading from an early age seems to have pre-disposed me to the career route I've been on. Granted, during the first two weeks of my freshman year at Hiram College, I had intended to be a biology major--until I found out that I'd have to take more math, chemistry (which had algebra in it--shudder), and a bunch of classes to get caught up because I didn't take calculus or physics during my senior year of high school. The next day, I declared an English major. The following year, I declared a second major in philosophy, to my parents' consternation.

"What are you going to do with THAT??"

I gave thought to law school, but when I spoke to my philosophy professor towards the end of my junior year, he told me that he didn't think I'd make it. 

"Not enough heart?" I said.

"No, too much heart. Being a lawyer would kill you because you take everything to heart," he said. And he was right.

So I took a year "off" after graduation, and worked on a Thoroughbred hunter-jumper farm as the head trainer's assistant. I lasted almost 9 months. The straight salary was terrible because I often worked 7 days a week. I lived in an "apartment" above the office in the showhorse barn, and paid them rent. Stupid. But I was working with these lovely animals, and I was outside 10 hours a I put up with it. When I quit to go back to school, the farm had to hire two people to do the work I'd been doing by myself. Duh.

Anyway, I went to grad school. The short version of my story is that I started teaching in 1995 as a graduate assistant, taught as an adjunct instructor at various schools from 1997 to 2000, and quit to work full-time as a researcher at an investment banking firm in Chicago. When the economy tanked in late fall of 2001 (9/11), I found myself without a job. I was newly married, and Hubby was from Wisconsin. We moved to Milwaukee. In 2002 I began working as an adjunct at Marquette University through my connection to one of my grad school professors. I was also hired by the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, and thus began my first-ever teaching job that paid an actual living wage, with benefits. Whatever we say (or think) about the UW System, it does take better care of its adjunct faculty than any place I've ever been. In 2004 I began as an adjunct on my current campus, and wowed the hiring committee with my teaching demonstration for a tenure-track position that began in the fall of 2005.

All of this has got me thinking (again) about getting through the next several months without having the kind of panic attack I had on Wednesday. I have felt destined to be a teacher since I was a kid (having a mother who was a teacher had a lot to do with it, too). I know that there are options, and certainly there are options that pay better--but teaching satisfies something in me that money cannot. I made more than $50K one year (2000) while working at the investment bank. That money enabled me to pay all of my bills (including my horrific student loan debt payments) AND pay for my own wedding in 2001. However, that money didn't make up for the lack I felt when I wasn't teaching. I felt like I was wasting time booking flights for cranky executives that would be better used helping students learn how to write.  So when I lost my job in November of 2001, I chose to see it as a blessing--the Universe trying to tell me to go back to teaching.

So here I am: 5 years down a road that's had its share of bumps. I know that my fate is in my hands, up to a point. Beyond that, I must trust that I have done all I can, which I suppose is the most that any of us can really do.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thirteen days away...

The contract year begins 8/26--next Thursday--but classes do not get underway until 9/2. I still have not finished my reading/assignment calendar for my English 101 (composition) course, only because I chose to use a different book this year. I wanted to return to something more pop-culture-y, so I'm using Remix: Reading and Composing Culture because the exam copy I got last year had some interesting stuff in it. So far I've chosen to do readings on identity, entertainment, and progress--mainly because they involve asking intelligent questions that don't have easy answers, which hopefully means I'll get some good discussions going.

That's provided my students actually read what's assigned.

I have struggled quite a bit in recent years with this particular aspect of my job. It's led to some issues in my tenure dossier, because as part of my self-analysis, I ended up ...complaining... without accurately expressing how I was searching for solutions.  So this year's make-or-break dossier is going to be all about the search for ways to engage my students--beyond the type of reading quizzes they got in high school. I will be highlighting the reading I've done over the summer, and I'm going to work my tail off at showing the EC that I'm engaged with engaging my students.

As a new experiment this semester, I'm going to try having my students blog about their reading; instead of "encouraging" them to keep a journal/log, I am going to have them blog about what they're reading and how they're reacting to that reading. My friend and colleague Jessica is going to help me get started on it so that I don't have to reinvent the wheel. 

The biggest problem I can see with this is that it is going to involve a LOT of reading on my part. A LOT. I may do it for the literature course alone, but the ENG 101 readings seem to be made for this sort of thing as well. I am not going to grade the content per se, but will try to figure out a way to grade the level of engagement. Perhaps I will use the blog in place of the traditional semi-formal assignments I've been using. The more I think about it, the more I think I will do it this way, if only to cut down on the amount of reading somewhat.

I love my job. I love reading about how other people approach this job and its challenges. I draw the line at using Twitter, and I'm not giving out my phone number because I am not a 7-11 (open 24-7) but I do use a variety of ways to engage with my students. What puzzles me is that the students seem to expect this level of engagement (or higher) from me, yet my expectations of them are shock-inducing (e.g. my attendance policy, my no-late-major-assignments-without-a-doctor's-note policy, my hard and fast D2L drop-box deadlines). If you're reading this and you're a teacher, what do you do to engage your students with the required materials (beyond quizzes and exams)?

Anyway, that's all for now...I've got Thing Two asking to get into my lap and there's just no way to refuse this face...

Friday, August 6, 2010

Vacation Reading List

We are in the last stage of summer, now. I can smell the "end" in the air: a mix of freshly-cut alfalfa, liquefied manure spread on shorn fields, and the mist of mosquito spray...

I am gathering up my books and papers to take to the cottage in far northern Wisconsin, and for the sake of my marriage, I am not taking anything post-apocalyptic. Hubby says it's making me a bit ... shall we say, nuts. I read Paolo Bacigalupi's most recent book Ship Breaker, as well as The Windup Girl. Both are set in a near-future where there's very little food and the gap between rich and poor has widened even further (in the case of the former), and where what food there is has been genetically engineered by huge megacorps that have in turn spawned unstoppable mega-bugs that kill off the crops and cause mass famine (in the case of the latter). Coming as this does on the heels of my teaching Food, Inc.and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, I'd say that Bacigalupi has hit the right nerve. I now have nightmares about our garden getting fungus and giant bugs.

So my vacation reading list:
  • Dracula Bram Stoker (re-read)
  • Snow Crash Neal Stephenson (re-read)
  • The Anubis Gates Tim Powers (re-read)
  • In Defense of Food Michael Pollan (finish for class)
Plus whatever else I can find that's halfway interesting when I finally get to BookWorld in Minocqua. If they have George Mann's new book The Osiris Ritual (steampunk), I'll be getting that. Gail Carriger's third book in the Parasol Protectorate, Blameless, doesn't come out until 8/31, which is inconvenient for my vacation plans. William Gibson's new book Zero History doesn't come out til September 7th so I'll have to cram that in while I'm getting the semester underway. He'll be at Borders on Michigan Ave. in Chicago on 9/17 so I'll have to see if I can get down there for that.

I'm also taking my notebooks so that I can keep scribbling ideas for my own book. I've discovered that sitting on the pontoon boat in the sun does wonders for my overall attitude about life, and when I'm in a better frame of mind, I can take my post-apocalyptic nightmares and turn them into something useful.

My protagonist has a name and I'm beginning to get the history together. In spite of having my chapbook summarily rejected last week, I'm feeling pretty good about my prospects for getting some work out there, and even though I've overloaded my brain with dystopic visions of the future (again), I'm feeling hopeful that we'll find a way out of the mess. The involuntary media-fast I'll be on (no cable, no internet, spotty phone service) means that I'll be able to focus without getting angry at the BS that currently passes for new-media journalism coverage of climate change, the oil spill, wheat shortages in Russia, and the Tea Party's unsurpassed arrogance and stupidity.

Be well, my friends.  

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Beginning of the End...of Summer

August 1st. Sunday. Hot. Sunny. Appropriate beginning to the final weeks of summer "vacation". 

To say that I am not looking forward to going back to work would be untrue: I am looking forward to seeing all of my colleagues at the opening meeting on the 26th, and I look forward to meeting my latest batch of minds.

I look forward to being able to update this blog without having to get up to
  • take DVDs/thumbdrives/pens/tape dispensers/remotes/power cords/grown-up books away from Thing Two
  • get Thing Two off the cat, who is screeching in protest at being hugged
  • pick the box fan up after Thing Two has knocked it over for the third time
all of which I have had to do in the last 10 minutes while trying to corral my skittering thoughts. Forget it. I'm mixing a UV Blue and lemonade, and I'm going outside to lounge and celebrate the Beginning of the End of Another Summer. I encourage you to do the same.

Be well, everyone.