Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Following Our Professional Dreams?

When I was about 16 years old, I came home from high school and told my mother that I had decided I would major in English when I got to college, that I would then move on to get my MFA in poetry/creative writing and that I would teach creative writing at the college level.  I knew what I was going to be when I grew up.

As a teenager, though, being a creative writing professor, or a writing professor in general, embodied one very cool professor I had freshman year of college. David Trinidad was a cool guy who wrote cool poetry and wore cool scarves and got to talk about poetry every day.  He was my hero - someone who had made a living off of poetry, when my blue-collar uncle had said to me years before, "Poetry?  Please.  Poets don't make any money. You can't be a poet."  The writing professor was a being to aspire to.

I am a writing professor now.  Primarily, I don't teach creative writing but rather composition.  Had you ever told me years ago, when I was drowning in Expository Writing at Rutgers, that I would be a composition expert, I may have told you that you were actually insane.  If I could have looked into a crystal ball and seen myself presenting on hybrid composition teaching at conferences, publishing articles in publications focusing on college composition, I may have checked to see if there was a large and quite tell-tale bump on your head, denoting an obvious concussion.  But here I am. And I love it.

I have found that it is all writing that moves me, not just poetry.  I have discovered the beauty of a well-written argument, of the student who has never felt successful at writing but does after completing my class, of the discussions involving the rhetoric we present in our classes.  I have transformed myself into not just a poet, but a composition expert, a hybrid expert, someone who actually researches and cites and works hard to teach my students how to present themselves in the real world.  Who knew?

This bridge between the creative writer and the composition writer is one that I have recently delved into in an article published in the CCCC Forum, Fall Issue 17.1.  In the article titled, "My Terminal Degree is Better than Yours:  A Brief Examination of the Creative Writer as Contingent Faculty," I explore the dichotomy between comp and creative.  Feel free to read it for more on the NCTE site.  

What do you think?  Can we be both?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Getting Lost Over the Summer

I always teach in the summer.  ALWAYS.  This summer, though, due to lack of enrollment, that is not the case, as mentioned in a previous blog post.  Now, I'm more than halfway into this "first summer I have not worked since I was 16 years old" and here's what I have to report:
  • It is quite easy to get lost in your head in front of a computer when you do not have any hard deadlines.
  • If you write enough prose poems in a row, everything you write, every email, Facebook status, blog post, seems like a prose poem.
  • Writer's block doesn't happen to me when I don't have a million papers to grade, a million emails to respond to, a million questions to answer.  That's right. I have conquered him, that mean old Block. Apparently, all it takes is some free time.  Who knew?

  • Gardening is fun. I mean, really relaxing and fun.  My porch currently looks like a suburban jungle.
  • Anyone who tells you they do not start preparing for their Fall semester courses until the end of August is a damn liar, or, alternatively, my nemesis.  My unfinished syllabi are already haunting me in my sleep.
  • Life at the university goes on when I am not there.  Really.  I went there a week or two ago for a technical training session and I got a parking ticket. Business as usual.
  • There are two ways to get your work published:  Write a lot and submit a lot.  There is no easier way.
  • Apparently, contrary to mid-semester belief, my house does not clean itself.  And the more time I spend in it, the more I realize what needs to be done.  I bought 9V batteries for smoke detectors today.  Okay, so maybe I have a little bit of writer's block.
  • Every now and then, I check my email for no reason at 11:00 on a Sunday night and feel a pang of sadness when I see I do not have 75 students freaking out over an assignment due in an hour and I have no one to comfort, no one to console, no one to direct.  Then, I realize that  I have no one to comfort, no one to console, no one to direct.  And I smile. 
  • Finally, and most importantly, I love my job.  I think about it when I am not doing it.  But this summer at least, I love poetry more.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Negotiating Summertime - Three Steps

I grade essays.  Lots and lots of essays.  I have a system for doing so and the nights that I am up until the wee hours reading arguments about poetry are very familiar to me - quiet living room, sleeping husband, bad '90s sitcoms on mute on the television.  Each day of the week, I negotiate with myself as to how many essays I can get done before dinner, between dinner and bed, maybe even between the morning workout and the commute to campus.  I calculate how many minutes each essay will take and each time, undoubtedly, underestimate that length.  In short, grading essays is a part of my life.

I have always taught summer classes, leaving little room for any period of time not grading essays. That's okay; I'm an educator and this is my job, right?  This year, though, my summer class got canceled.  Canceled.  And so begins my journey into not grading, not negotiating grading timetables, not watching Full House on mute at two in the morning.  

How will I do this?  I have a lot of time on my hands.  And yes, I have other projects planned for the summer, projects that will most likely make me some money and keep me relatively busy.  The problem is, I am used to responsibilities that include a constant cloud of essays hanging over me, waiting to be graded, evaluated, sent back for revision.  Any project I choose this summer, and there are many, will not create this kind of schedule.  I will have to adjust. I will have to figure out how to do this.

So, here are my steps.  

1.  Read.  

I know. This sounds counter-productive.  I spend the entire academic year reading; why continue?  Personally, I just cannot let my brain turn to mush.  I need stimulation.  I need thought.  So, I read.  I read romance novels and entertainment magazines and bestsellers and poems and book club books and articles about student loan debt.   I find myself watching Jeopardy religiously just to prove to myself that I can still rock out the American Literature category. It helps. I think.

2.  Take the time to remember why you were motivated in the first place.

It's easier said than done.  When we spend ten months saying, "Once I get a break, I'll write that article" or "I'm going to start that small business if it kills me" or "That novel is not going to finish itself," we are all gung-ho when that break comes.  You grab a cup of coffee and are seated in front of that crisp, white, empty Word document by 8:00 am.  You're going to change the world.  And then, you get distracted - by Facebook, by videos of kittens playing with string, by the internet in general and all of the ridiculousness it has to offer.  Why have you lost that motivation?  Because you're tired!  This seems like a time for a little self-reflection, a break, possibly even (gasp!) a vacation.  No one says you have to go party in Miami.  Maybe sit in a bookstore for awhile and stare off into the sea of people around you, or visit relatives, or drive to the beach by your lonesome just to sit.  You'll remember, sooner or later, upon reflection, what it was that made you so gung-ho in the first place, and you'll be more productive for it.

3.  Stop being so mean to yourself!

Listen, we all feel like we should be doing more after two semesters or more (I haven't had a summer without at least one class in five years) of grading and teaching like superstars.  But it's okay to have a glass of wine at four in the afternoon on a Wednesday when you have no papers to grade and some old episodes of Twin Peaks bookmarked on your Netflix.  It's okay to take an entire day (!!) to do NOTHING AT ALL.

(I just couldn't resist my favorite Simpsons line there!) So relax; take it all in.  Summer is happening, whether you're teaching or not.  Enjoy it.  Write something.  Read something.  Research something.  Or, do nothing at all.  Ned Flanders would approve.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Facing Plagiarism with a Positive Attitude?

**This blog was originally posted on "Deep Down in the Classroom," a blog maintained by the Montclair State University First Year Writing Program, which can be viewed here.

I don’t know about all of my fellow educators, but I certainly found some plagiarism as this semester wound down.  A couple of weeks ago, particularly, an essay came back from Safe Assign with a 70% rate of plagiarism. It was a documented essay that was two pages short of the minimum length requirement with no citations or sources.  The essay was almost completely taken from two blog posts.  Disheartening does not begin to describe it and meeting with the student to discuss this absolute blatant abuse of the internet as information provider was truly no picnic.
I know that this is a discussion that educators have frequently and I appreciate that many of you are probably tired of discussing it.  However, in my absolute desperation, I have been reading articles online that address the issue, and I found one in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, although from September of 2012, addresses plagiarism as something that requires that “the solution should be positive; that is, show students how to act as responsible scholars and writers. The same tone should be reflected in the syllabus. [The author says he has] seen many syllabi in which the penalties for plagiarism are laid out in excruciating detail, with no positive models or behavior mentioned. Surely by now we know that positive motivation trumps the negative variety” (Karon).  Of course, many of us find this difficult, as the absolute frustration takes over and we feel like our students will never care about the ethical implications of “borrowing” work from other writers, scholars or random yahoos online who write blog posts and therefore, must be credible.
I guess I am writing for two reasons.  First, I would like to hear how all of you have dealt with this over the course of our current academic year.  How do you distinguish intentional from accidental?  Second, I would love to hear solutions for prevention.  Should we not allow any sources that do not come from the University Library?  Will it make a difference, when students don’t cite many of these sources anyway?  Finally, how do you stick to your guns?  I find that when faced with a crying student, I have to steel myself to the tears and really make myself stay strong in order to make sure that the student learns from the experience and grows into a ethical adult and writer in the future.
I know we’re all busy and you probably don’t want to discuss that which upsets us so much, but your insights are invaluable.  Plus, it will be nice to get emails that are not grade complaints or appeals for leniency.  :)
Here is the link to the article and, in the interest of academic honesty, the MLA citation.
Karon, Jeff.  ”A Positive Solution for Plagiarism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 Sept. 2012.  Web.  2 May 2013.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

You Kill Me, Robert Frost

It is early afternoon, hours before I feel that I can actually turn my mind off, and I am reminded of the great Robert Frost, who's birthday it is today.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This is one of my favorite stanzas in all of poetry.  The simplicity of it, the normalcy, jars me.  Robert Frost, writer of great, widely misinterpreted quatrains, writer who dominates my students' choices for subjects of research papers, had obligations too.  He probably sat there on a Tuesday afternoon with a sore tooth and a cold cup of coffee muddling through the creation of what he hoped was useful feedback too. He was just like me.

Of course, I am no Robert Frost.  I am just a college writing professor, a selectively published poet, a woman with 75 empty grading rubrics and a queue of 75 essays that need to be paid careful attention.  But I find this parallel, this reminder of normalcy and obligation, comforting in this land I call the middle of the semester, a place where I often forget to come up for air.

Midterms can be a scary place filed with deadlines and grade complaints and committee work and the plain old grading that comes with being a teacher of writing. But today, Robert Frost and his small concession to a perfectly normal desire for sleep offered me a realization that is actually priceless in today's "get it done fast" world. I realized I could sleep if I wanted to. I could sleep and I could go for a run and I could bake healthy cookies with agave instead of sugar and I could do all this even if I felt like I didn't have time because really, who wants to count the miles they have to go before they can sleep?  

And really, you'll find a way to get it done anyway.  You always do, don't you?  Go for a run.  Enjoy the sunlight.  Take a break.  Eat a piece of chocolate.  Keep your promises to yourself as well as everyone else. Be a person and a professor. It's okay.  I think that we've all earned a random hour or two to ourselves.  This evening, I'm going to spend mine with a novel.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Poem Published!

My poem, "He Told Me" (dedicated to Langston Hughes) has been published in OVS Magazine's Winter issue.  You can check it out here.  

This is a great magazine and a wonderful group of people run it.  I am happy to be included and even more excited to read the other work in the issue.  

For every 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 rejection letters, there lies a publication that will appreciate your poetry for what it is - your best work.  Thank you, OVS, for recognizing a poem that I love more than many poems I have written, more than warm blankets in snowstorms, more than white wine and scallops, more than any of the terrible pieces I have written and scrapped. 

What a validating feeling, to see your work in print.  Celebration!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Teaching Development: The Evil of Page Requirements

As a writing professor, I often have students who struggle to reach the required amount of pages for their essays.  In writing classes that students must take, regardless of major, many of them are just beginning to find their voices in academic writing.  They straddle an interesting line; either they are too wordy, too redundant, in order to meet that length requirement, or they have not come up with enough content to meet the requirement without being too wordy or too redundant.  They are upset that they can't get to five pages or they are upset that they did get to five pages and I told them it wasn't good enough.

Paul McHenry Roberts wrote one of my favorite essays about student writing:  "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words."  He touches upon many subjects but mostly, he addresses the fact that students do struggle to create intelligent and effective content and do not understand when they stretch their prose out to within an inch of its life to reach five pages that they do not get straight A's.  He wants students to use five words where they may have used ten words before, to say, "He was a fool" instead of, "It seems to me that he acted in a foolish manner."  But how do they meet the requirements of the assignment by using so few words?  How can concise writing actually fix the problem?

I think the major challenge here is creating content.  Students resort to wordy redundancy because they don't have any other ideas. They believe they have nothing else to write about, so they stretch out what they have. And hey, I was either an English or writing major for 8 1/2 years; I know all about changing fonts to make the essay longer and using ten words when I could have used three.  The trick is to find more to write about, but how?

It's easy to tell students, "Don't give up!  Go back to the brainstorming stage to come up with more content to support your central claim." But this is often an impossible instruction.  Many students are either unaccustomed to the process of brainstorming or they are unwilling to put in the extra work.  You can show them as many clustering webs and perfectly formatted outlines as you can find, but still, when left to complete this process on their own, they may feel frustration, confusion or just plain boredom.  They don't always have fully developed skills of analysis and therefore are unable to tell if the ideas they do come up with will be effective in proving their claim(s).  It's a confusing cycle and one that I think many educators struggle with as well.

So, how do we teach development in academic essays?  Are there any exercises you all use to help students to develop their existing ideas or to come up with new ones?

I have one that has been passed around between professors at a couple of the universities where I have taught.  There are different incarnations of it.  I believe I first heard it in a faculty workshop with  Jay Dolmage, author of How to Write Anything, which was, at that time, being used in freshman composition at that college.  It's a revision exercise.  The idea is that you let each student roll two dice.  The number they roll is the number of words they can keep from the original draft; they must use those words to start over.

I have revised it a bit, allowing my students to keep sentences instead of words,. but I have found that this aids in developing their ideas, because when they are only staring at like eight words and the rest of the essay is not there to create bias or to impede the creative flow, new ideas form.  They can then merge these new ideas with the original draft and (voila!) development occurs. In a perfect world, in an ideal and willing class, of course.

Are there solutions?  Tricks of the trade?  Exercises?  Power points?  What do you know that you can share?

How do we teach development?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The First Day of Classes - and the Jokes That Fall Flat

I consider myself to be a pretty funny person.  But you just never know what will make students laugh and stop being so freaked out by the 6 page syllabus weighing down their desks.  They are sweating the attendance policy, mentally configuring what their schedules would look like if they dropped my class.  And all I want to do is break the tension.  

This is harder than it sounds.  They don't want to laugh at my jokes and admit that maybe, just maybe, it's okay to stay in a difficult class because the professor might be cool.  They are cold (hey, you try trekking across campus to my icebox of a basement classroom one day!) and they are tired (it is the first day, after all) and all they want is for me to stop talking, give them homework and send them on their way. 

So, I use a Homer Simpson reference to break the ice. Usually, Homer does it.  These students cannot remember a world without Homer Simpson so I figure I am in the clear (unlike when I mention ALF or Happy Days, both of which clearly show my age).  I give the reference...

...and this is how my students react:

I'm trying here; I really am!  Today was rough.  A few snickers at the Hunger Games reference (probably just because they can't believe I know what they read), and I'm done for the day.  Getting them to want to be here is usually a little easier than this.  

The point here is, I am trying to get them to engage and the usual tricks just didn't work today.  Ice-breakers galore and all of my previous training is still useless.

But I will get them to love books!  I will! (says every literature professor in America on the first day of classes...)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Drums for a Good Cause

As you may or may not know, I am from New Jersey.  I was born here, I grew up here, I live here and I work here.  So you can imagine that Hurricane Sandy hit close to home for me.  I saw the ugliness of homes ruined, livelihoods washed away, and I saw the beauty of communities that banded together to take care of each other, complete strangers breaking their backs for days.

A good friend of mine, a fellow New Jerseyan, drums for the ska-punk band Streetlight Manifesto and he is auctioning off his custom Dark Horse Percussion Drum Kit to raise funds for Hurricane Sandy Relief.  Please consider bidding and also sharing this auction with others.

Thank you!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Guest Editor

I have just learned that I will be a guest editor for the Summer 2013 issue of OVS Magazine.  Please feel free to check out their site and previous issues.  

I will have a poem published in their upcoming Winter issue and will then serve as guest editor in the Summer. I am thankful to OVS for including me in their process and I look forward to it! Here is the current issue.  Check it out!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Least Stressful Job in America?

Recently, I read an article on claiming that CareerCast has calculated that university professors have the least stressful jobs in America.  Allow me to address this now that I have calmed down and am no longer throwing darts at a picture of the writer as I cry tears of happiness all over my final grades for the Fall semester.  

The original Forbes article can be found here,  Before I get into my opinion, I would like to note that professors all over the country and possibly the world have complained about this gross understatement of our responsibilities.  Of course, I by no means have the most difficult or stressful job in America.  So I would, of course, like to start out by saying that I love my job and that I am not complaining about it; I am just addressing the horrid lack of research in this article and the misconception that we all took these jobs for summers off and lazy days on the couch.

In this article, the writers mentions, "At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five."  Woah, slow down there, buddy.  I'm not sure I know even one professor who does not take his or her work home.  As a writing professor, I sometimes have to grade 50-70 essays per week, or even within a 3 day period.  I answer emails constantly and am actually thinking about just ignoring the email on my smartphone for a period each day to alleviate the stress of constant connection.  (But let's not kid ourselves; that will never happen and in fact, the connection will become even more apparent as more and more students get smartphones themselves.)  Among other misconceptions in this article are:

  1. University professors do not answer to anyone.
  2. We are off in the summer.
  3. Universities adding more adjunct positions over the next 7 years is a good thing.
Of course we answer to someone!  In some universities, professors do not even write their own syllabi.  (Check out the University of Phoenix online program; I can assure you that professors there have very little leeway.)  There is a Chair. There is a Dean.  There are colleagues who expect of you what they put in - the hardest work and most concise attention possible.  In addition, even if we do not teach in the summer (and let me tell you, many of us not only teach but get quite upset when there are no classes available to teach) we are doing research, writing articles, trying to publish (and much of the time, collecting rejection letters like pennies), preparing for classes and trying to improve our teaching.  Finally, why not add more full-time positions so that the roving adjunct is a thing of the past?

Real Grading

To the writer's credit, she did write an addendum to this article after MANY university professors spoke out.    But even in that addendum, she underhandedly insults the position when she says, "While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books." So, she still characterizes us as lazy, but hey, she's been confronted, so let's give them what they want.

I think that what most professors want, and most educators in general, is simply for the hard work they do to be appreciated.  Speaking for myself, I do not mind the hard work and I love watching my students learn and grow.  I enjoy presenting at conferences and being a part of the academic world.  And yes, I do get some time to vacation or to watch Downton Abbey during my breaks.  But after working 70 hours a week during the semester, can you blame me for wanting to escape into 1912 England for awhile?  But aside from all of this, it is the positive comments from students, the acknowledgement of hard work from superiors, acceptances to publications and conferences, that lift me up and make me realize the world of good that I do, or try to do, on a regular basis.  It would be great if the writer could answer this one question: 

Do you find it not stressful to make sure that young adults actually turn out to be successful in the global community?

The internet, understandably, has been buzzing with the fallout of this article for about a week now. As a result, new Twitter hashtags have been created and new articles to go against this silliness have been written. Forbes even published "Top 10 Reasons Being a University Professor is a Stressful Job."  So, after finally writing about this myself and admitting that yes, my job does rock but that does not mean I am without stress, (and please stop making my students think my job is so cushy, as you have no idea the repercussions of such ignorance), I am putting it aside.  But I would love to hear from my fellow educators.  Please feel free to comment when you are taking a break from syllabi preparation, as we all know that's what you're doing right now.