Friday, December 21, 2012

Poem Acceptance

I am happy to report that one of my poems, "He Told Me," has been accepted for publication in the upcoming issue of OVS Magazine.  This is a great literary magazine that brings literature and visual art together.

Feel free to check them out here.

I will keep everyone updated about when it comes out and where it's available.  But for now, please enjoy one of my favorite John Ashbery poems - a poem about poetry.

Paradoxes and Oxymorons
by John Ashbery

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Submitting Final Grades Before the End of the World

Well, here it is - the end of the semester.  Finals have been studied for, papers have been written.  Professors are gathering their strategies for dealing with grade complaints; students are gathering their things and heading home to celebrate the holidays with their families.  My world is filled with final portfolios and urgent student emails.  Until this morning, I forgot that tomorrow is the end of the world.


Don't get me wrong - I'm not a believer.  I was in Central America this past summer and the tour guides at the Mayan ruins  were completely unaffected by the possibility that the Mayans had predicted the end of the world.  They were skeptical, but happy; after all, they make money off of those of us who want to see the ruins and question the mysticism of a culture long-gone.  But even with no batteries in the house, no bottled water, I'm working hard to get my final grades in before tomorrow.  Why?

Cahal Pech Ruins, Belize - May, 2012

Reason #1:  If they survive, won't students be thankful for their grades and less likely to complain?  I tell myself that life is ultimately more important than a C-, that breath trumps G.P.A.  Idealistic, I know.  Hopeful at best.  And yet, the beauty and strength our country has shown in the past few months, between a "superstorm" that crippled us and a school shooting that took those most innocent and close to all of our hearts, has made me believe the best in people.  So, let me hold on to the belief that my students will appreciate life and allow me to appreciate mine.

Reason #2:  I am completely obsessive about my email.  During the semester, I cannot go a day without checking it.  If grades are not submitted, I can't put an away message up on my email for the end of the world because technically, my students might still need me.  I don't consider my semester finished until I enter those grades into the system.   And who wants to check their email during the apocalypse?  My phone didn't even work after the hurricane; I'm not sure what will happen if alien overlords descend onto our planet and make us their slaves.

Reason #3:  I just want to be done!  Let's be real; saying the end of the world is coming tomorrow is just a reason to be done by the 21st of December, quite early when you consider that grades are not even due until 12/27.  This semester has been rewarding on many levels. I have found myself as an academic and am more confident than ever in my ability to help my students reach their goals.  I piloted a new hybrid syllabus and some essay assignments that I think worked quite well and that I can tweak to perfect before the Spring semester.  I offered feedback until my eyes felt like they were bleeding.  And now., it's time to write out those holiday cards (yes, friends and family, you will be getting those around Christmas Eve because that's the way I roll), wrap those gifts (and I really take pride in my wrapping, so that takes some time), bake those cookies and gather with my friends to watch the end of the world.

After all, if the world is going to end, who wants final grades hanging over their heads?  Not this professor.  Count me as finished by tomorrow - and let me know if you survive.

REM - It's the End of the World As We Know It

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paper Grading Bingo

 I thought we could all use a way to make those final weeks, days and hours of grading a little more entertaining.  Let's play Bingo!  Meradeth of "A Girl's Guide to Graduate School," thank you for sharing!

If you get BINGO, please let everyone know in the comments section!  And feel free to vent; we all love our jobs, but we have to let it out every now and then. :)


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When in Academia...Learn to Appreciate the Good Ones

Recently, someone linked me to a Tumblr page called "When in Academia."  I have to say, it is hilarious.

My personal favorite is the one that points out the face one makes "when the very first word of a student's essay is grammatically incorrect."  The image is Neil Patrick Harris looking utterly and completely disappointed.  He is looking down, shaking his head, voicing all of our frustrations as writing professors.  

We have all been there.  There's that student - the one who comes to office hours and who sends you emails at all times of the day and night, who then submits an essay that is grammatically weak, to say the least, does not follow any of the guidelines that you put on the assignment or went over in class, and is basically the work of a student who doesn't do any of the things previously mentioned.  It's like he never listened to you in the first place, like he is coming to office hours to make up for the fact that during class time he is off in another world, or sleeping, or, apparently, temporarily deceased.  

The fact is, regardless of all of our good intentions, sometimes students just don't listen.  They don't do the reading and they don't talk in class.  I stand in front of the blackboard, talking to myself in a room full of people, hoping that they remember to read the paper assignment before submitting an essay that makes me sad.

So, I learn to appreciate that great class full of students who do talk.  They have done the reading and they have ideas, real ideas, about what the themes in that reading might be.  They not only read the paper assignment, but they follow it to the letter, double spacing and using direct quotations from the text (formatted correctly in MLA).  They, simply, do what they are supposed to do.  And I look like this:

This semester, I have one of those classes.  The students all seem to be friends.  They come in and greet each other with enthusiasm.  They start talking about the literature before class technically begins.  They relate the literature to their own lives and they wonder out loud about what Thornton Wilder meant when he made Emily Webb go back in time to her 12th birthday.  Their essay grades are not exemplary, but they follow my instructions. They listen. They may not be "A" students.  Many of them are not even "B" students. But they come prepared for the work that college demands of them.  And that, my friends, is worth all of the incorrect citations and ignored instructions in the world. 

Mentioned on the Montclair University Website!

Sarah has been mentioned on Montclair State University's First Year Writing Program website.

To read more about the First Year Writing Program, where Sarah is a professor, please visit the above page.  It is an amazing program and a recent recipient of the prestigious CCCC writing certificate of excellence.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

New and Improved Website!

Check out my new and improved website!  While visiting, you will find:
  • Poetry
  • Stories
  • Information about my professional services
  • Testimonials 
  • Information about my publications and qualifications
Have a wonderful day!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Managing the Workload of the Composition Classroom

It's Monday night.  I have four classes in a row tomorrow.  Tuesdays are my long day. I must leave my house at 8:00 am to get to my 10:00 am class on time because of traffic. I will undoubtedly leave at 8:15 am, making it just in time, but while punching my steering wheel and unnecessarily hating the people who innocently drive in front of me on the New Jersey Turnpike.  I will then teach until 3:45 pm and battle the Turnpike on the way home once again.  By the time I get home, I will not want to do anything, let alone analyze the central claims of my composition students.  So, I have to get these 30 essays graded tonight.

I begin to panic.  "I can't get it done," I think.  "I can't get it done without losing my mind."  Then I start to negotiate with myself.  "Maybe if I get 20 essays graded tonight, I can fit in 10 tomorrow in between classes and finish off the rest when I get home."  Then, I start to calculate.  "Well, if I spend 15 minutes on each essay, that's 450 minutes total, which is 7 1/2 hours. I will work for 5 hours tonight and 2 1/2 hours tomorrow." Yes, that should do it.

The problem is, that calculation does not include answering student emails. It does not include taking breaks to eat, or to frivolously browse Facebook; it does not include folding the laundry or watering the plants or writing essay prompts, and I certainly haven't left myself time to write lesson plans for those four classes I have to teach tomorrow.  I'm looking at a very short night's sleep, and a winter break that still seems very far away.

Don't get me wrong. I truly love my job. I love to work with students, to teach them how to write, to watch them improve and to begin to understand the world of academic writing.  I love being in the classroom and I even love reading student papers and watching their ideas take shape. I love writing.  The workload, though, the sheer number of essays, can be staggering at times.  I begin to sound like Prufrock in my head.  "I grow old...I grow old..."

Years ago, when I got my first half-time professorship, a superior said to me, "Sarah, just put grades on those final drafts and be conservative with the comments. They need to learn how to revise independently, and you will have already commented extensively on the first or even middle draft."  This advice runs through my head on a regular basis, and especially during those times when I'm drowning in a sea of incorrect MLA citations with no end in sight.  As a teacher of writing, I feel guilty when I leave short comments. I know, logically, that my superior was right; students must learn to improve their own writing and I must give them room to do so.  But how do we know when we're not doing enough?  How do we gauge when we're holding their hands too much?  

Over the years, colleagues have offered their grading rituals.  Some have shared rubrics and some have shared tips and tricks. (One person told me that she would set a timer for one hour, sit there and do work with no distractions for that one hour and then allow herself a 15 minute break when the timer went off.)  I have attended workshops and I have updated and changed my own process and rubric numerous times.  I think the problem is that many of us don't want to accept it:  Being a writing professor is a time-consuming job that allows you to truly appreciate those lovely breaks that teaching at a university afford you.  In fact, more than I tell myself the essays will never end, more than I search for ways to make grading more efficient, more than I ask friends how they do it, I say to myself, "Sarah, I think you just need to suck it up."  This, more than anything else, seems to work.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Conference and Essay Proposals for Contingent Faculty

Recently, I got an email asking for stories of contingent faculty and how their experiences in the academic world differ from those in tenure-track positions.  The idea of writing an essay proposal and then an essay about this topic appealed to me as I was an adjunct professor for a long time before becoming a full time lecturer at Montclair State University.  My thought is that one of the issues in the world of contingent faculty is the difference in degrees; specifically, although an M.F.A. is considered a terminal degree, those who have them are often passed by for more permanent positions in favor of those who have Ph.Ds.  And this creates the kind of competition that can define the world of academia.

I'm not against good old healthy competition and I believe it motivates us to work harder and to engage with the academic community in a more concrete way - and more often, for that matter.  However, the world of a creative writer - one who can certainly teach academic writing quite well (and we do!) but who's focus is more on creative writing and who most likely holds an M.F.A. is a different world than that of a Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric and composition.  Publishing is an important aspect of being part of the academic community.  For me, however, it has always been creative.  I have had mentors encouraging me to publish in literary journals and to apply for creative grants that require creative publications for years.  I have focused on The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Fence.  My graduate thesis is an 80 page long collection of poetry that I am constantly revising and sending to publishers and presses. I have participated in workshops, Summer programs, applied for grants and fellowships, all based on poetry.  And now, after years of learning how to teach writing, years of working as an adjunct at several different universities in one semester, years of fighting for the full time lecturer position I have now, I am competing against people with academic dissertations who get to be called “Doctor” and get paid more than me because their terminal degree is apparently more accepted than my terminal degree.  And somehow, I have to publish.  And I’m talking in the scholarly world, which is apparently, to use an overused metaphor, a whole different ball game.

The wonderful part of this is, I am embracing the challenge.  I am researching, writing, looking at the issues that my writing students face analytically, using APA format.  I am becoming the scholar that I only touched upon in graduate school in between poems.  My question is, how do other contingent faculty members deal with the expectations, the competition, the divide between creative and academic?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Grading Essays in the 21st Century.

Well, we are now a few weeks into the semester and for most writing professors, the grading has begun.  Personally, the first draft of the first essay in my class is not due for another week or so, so I have had some time to reflect on the process of grading, the amount of time it sucks from my life on a regular basis, like a yogi taking deep, plentiful breaths, and how I can reconcile my need for personal time with the needs of my students.

It's an age old question.  How do I make time for myself and still call myself an effective educator? As writing professionals, this is difficult, as our grading does not consist of answer keys but of comments - helpful, substantive comments that will help our students to be better at one of the most basic of all professional tasks - writing.  We live in a world where people write more than ever.  Between social networking, blogging, articles, memos and text messages, we are composing sentences and paragraphs at an alarming rate each day.  As teachers of writing, it is our job to help our students recognize a well-written sentence and an incomplete sentence; it is our job to make those Facebook statuses sing.

But how do you do so when your family is coming over for Sunday dinner, your kids have Saturday morning soccer games, your best friend's birthday lands on a Friday night and  you need to clean the house and go grocery shopping - all in addition to the stack of essays or the stacked inbox mocking you at every turn?  How many times can you hear someone tell you to learn to "manage your time" before you want to stick a pencil in their eye?

I have not, by any means, figured this out to perfection.  In fact, I still deal with the odd professor's guilt that comes over me each time I watch a wave from the beach or eat one of my grandmother's meatballs when I could be in front of my computer analyzing my students' central claims.  But I think I have found a sort of balance that lends itself to the 21st century:  Digitize!

Since I started accepting essays only via email, my time has opened up just enough to make me notice.  I think that the main reason for this is that grading on the computer allows for multitasking; I can grade a paper and then update my blog, work on my family's calendar or even teach an online class during those moments when I just can't read another central claim about how Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" challenges our ideas of tradition and ritual.  I can grade an essay and enter the grade into a my Excel grade book without hunting around the house for my paper grade book or a colored pen.  I can copy and paste a section of a paper that I suspect is plagiarized without having to underline it, retype it and write down the website address where I finally find it.  Whether I like it or not, the world is digital and by grading this way, I am not only allowing myself more free time; I am also allowing my students to submit their work through the medium in which they are most comfortable.

Last year, I presented at the annual NJWA conference and showed the people who attended my session how to use Google's Gmail, and Microsoft Excel and/or Google Drive to create grade books and rubrics as well as organize student emails efficiently. The best part is, it's free!  I am in the process of putting these instructions into an E-book, which will then be published on Amazon.  If you are interested in learning how to do this, please let me know and I will add your email address to my list of people to notify when the book comes out.  The most important thing to remember is that this is the 21st century; we can grade, write and communicate without ever using a piece of paper or one ounce of ink, and doing so can vet us more free time than we ever had before.

Let me know what you think. I would love to hear the experiences of others with digital grading.  And good luck with the first round of papers!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Preparing for the Fall Semester: Ice-Breakers

Ah, the Fall semester.  College campuses are electric with motivation and good intentions.  Notebook paper is bright white, chalkboards are shiny black, every student organization is out and about, recruiting, meeting and making themselves known.  The hope is contagious as it slides through the air like germs, wonderfully infectious.  I have revised my syllabus to within an inch of its life, accounting for every situation that could possibly present itself, using past semesters as benchmarks.  I have a new attendance policy, new multimedia assignments and clips from current movies to supplement the literature.  I am confident that my students, even though they are forced to take my class, will enjoy it.

Now, a week away from this marvel of higher learning, I find myself considering the first day of last year's Fall semester.  It's pretty much the same every year. The first class usually goes well.  My energy is up and students are actually excited, albeit a bit apprehensive, to read the syllabus and spy the required readings.  A select few are jumping at the chance to study poetry and others are terrified of it, poetry being the big, dark monster in the corner of the room. Of course, they are willing to attack the monster and I am thinking of ways to get them to do so.  My next class begins and I am still riding that roller coaster of expectation.  But by the time my third class starts, I realize once again that not every class is the same by any stretch of the imagination.  These students are stiff and quiet, seemingly exhausted already, and it's only 1:00pm.  They don't want to talk to each other and half of them don't have the book.  So what do I do?

This is an issue that I have seen many professors tackle with fervor.  How can we get non-responsive students to respond from the very start?  

The first step is to get them to know one another.  In my personal experience, there is little that is as discouraging as feeling completely alone in a college course, especially when group work is mentioned in the syllabus.  The idea of this future collaboration becomes an anvil weighing down the shy student, the student who would be fine just writing her essays in her own corner, meeting me for office hours every now and then for clarification.  And so, the icebreaker presents itself.

We all know icebreakers.  These are exercises that we hope will introduce students to each other.  My hope is that by the end of the first icebreaker exercise, students will have exchanged email addresses and will be connected by their own personal information.  For the first icebreaker, I usually ask students to interview each other and then present their findings to the class, an old standard, but a reliable one.  What is your favorite book?  Let's make friends!

But are icebreakers only for introductions and the support of burgeoning friendships?  Not necessarily.  Icebreakers can be used to introduce the course as well and, especially in a writing course, they can be used to explain.  Let me explain.  

In a writing course, I find that one of the concepts the students struggle with (especially in First Year Writing) is explaining their ideas.  They will state their points (i.e. "The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is an upsetting story."), but they do not explain why the discomfort this story projects is important to a larger issue.  They shun the word "because."  They feel we should already know. To combat this lack of explanation, I ask students to complete the following exercise:

Who is your favorite musician or musical group?  Write down three reasons as to why they are your favorite.  For example, you might say, "Adele is my favorite musician because her voice is very unique" or "The Foo Fighters are my favorite band because they write all of their own songs and have been around for most of my life."  You should have three clear reasons. When you are finished writing them down, give your paper to your interview partner and he/she will read it out loud when introducing you to us.

They might hate this exercise, but in my experience, they usually welcome it.  It gives them a chance to talk about what they love.  You can revise this to be specific to literature too, asking them about their favorite books, but I find that this approach does not always work because you will always have students who don't really read books and who would rather read blogs (like you!), magazines or Facebook updates.  Most importantly, this exercise introduces students to the concept of analysis and the ultimate question in analysis:  Why?

So, as the Fall semester approaches, it's big, muddy footsteps following us as we sleep, it's time to prepare for the worst.  Maybe you will have a class that doesn't want to answer your questions, introduce themselves or read the stories you have so painstakingly  picked out. When faced with this class, what will you do?

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Expectations of Summer Session Students

What is it that we want to accomplish with Summer classes?  As educators, the list is endless.
- Teach a semester's worth of information in 6 weeks
- Inspire students with a semester's worth of thoughts in 6 weeks
- Prepare ourselves for the upcoming semester
And the list goes on.

The question is, what do students want to accomplish and how can we help them?

In my experience, students taking Summer classes are trying to accomplish one of two things. 
1) They are going to be seniors in the Fall and need a certain amount of credits to graduate at the end of the upcoming academic year.
2) They have been dreading a certain class and hope that it will be easier if they take it over 6 weeks instead of 16 weeks.

Is it easier though?  Not likely. And herein lies the problem.

What students don't realize is that Summer classes are quite condensed but the requirements are the same.  This leads to an intensive 6 weeks, during which they must work harder than they might work during a regular semester.  Instead, many of my students approach the class as if the rules and requirements are more lax because it's hot outside.  How can we combat this misinformation?  By teaching.

Let your students know from the start that this is an intensive class.  Keep them for the entire class time, even if you are hot and tired and you just want to lay on your couch in the air conditioning watching the Olympics and drinking cold water.  Hold actual office hours.  Offer extra help.  Offer helpful feedback.  Think only of your students during class time, not conference proposals or academic papers or any of the other tasks you meant to accomplish during the Summer.  Simply, treat your Summer classes like any other class.

So, as your Summer classes wind down, remember that many of these students expect a certain grade and may need that grade for a certain reason (for instance, they need to get into a specific program), so their complaints after entering your final grades may be plentiful.    Be patient.  Remember what it felt like to flounder for a B when you really got a C.  And most importantly, give it your all.