Category Archives: Teaching

A-typical post

atypical post or maybe a typical post.

Jonathan Culler makes a point about how we view poetry, or even recognize it.  Sometimes I use this point with my students when we cover something from the avant-garde.   Usually, students are accustomed to dealing with poetry on classical terms.

Poem by Guillaume Apollinaire from Calligrammes.

How do they recognize a poem? Its (predictable) orientation on the page (at first glance).  Perhaps it’s a sonnet with two stanzas of four lines each and two stanzas of three lines each.  It doesn’t extend down the whole page, some say.  It doesn’t cross the whole page, others offer.

So, in taking a cue from Culler, I often write a line on the board. Something like.  Heat fully before serving.  And I ask them to tell me about what they read. Often, they tell me, “Well, that’s clearly from cooking directions.”  Good! I enthuse.  Then I ask them, “Is this a poem? It’s isolated. It doesn’t have any context, right?”   I see their faces screw up and their, lips pursed, brows furrowed.  Usually, there’s one leader in the pack who then offers, “No, that is not poetry.”

Ok, why isn’t it poetry? I ask them.   The response is usually something like, “It doesn’t sound like poetry.”   Aha! I say.  So, “Poetry has to sound like poetry?”  They nod their heads affirmatively (everyone hopping on board). I then ask them to tell me what poetry sounds like.  And they do.  Long (and studious) explanations about rhyme schemes, patterns of sound, and so forth. Very smart stuff.

Then I ask them to consider something. What if I take our excerpted line of directions and I do something like this with it:

F U L L Y        B
F            s
O             e
R                r
E                  v

“Ohhhhhhhh”  They say.  “That’s different.”   Different? How? I ask.   Well, that doesn’t look like directions any more.   What does it look like?  “Some kind of art,”  they say.

Grading the horizon, accountability

The semester looms like some evil monster approaching through the fog. We can hear its roar of battle and our heartbeats accelerate into fight-or-flight, adrenaline starts pumping — or, in my case, I think “hibernate now, sleep. Get sleep.”

By now it’s clear that the Chronicle of Higher Education often provokes me into thought which then pours out here on my sinful road to intellectual perdition. A recent editorial in the Chronicle on the topic of grading caught my eye.  So, some mental salad about how to approach the dreaded topic with our students.

I think it is safe to say that the majority of us approach our students full of hope that we will successfully teach them something and that this will contribute to their over-all success. I know that I am elated when I see my students achieve or get past a hurdle. I also know that when I grade and I see them struggle or even fail, I personally begin to feel bad. My first move is to assess the problem: is it isolated to this student or is it across all the students?  If one student, is it a trend? If across all students: what did I fail to communicate and how can I improve and find a way to reach them that they will understand?

I hope we all do this. Scholars we may be, but educators we most definitely are required to be. I’ve heard a myriad of commentary from my professors as a graduate student ranging from: “Your research is paramount. Research is what we do. Your teaching is secondary. You must not let your teaching interfere with your research.”

To: “You will be hired to teach. They will assume your research is important to you. You must have good and demonstrable teaching skills because they’re going to hire you to fill a need. ”   I’m pretty sure (though you senior scholars out there will know best)  that the road is a combination of both. Since, usually we’re hired to deal with both areas of our career simultaneously and with aplomb if we’re hoping for that prized tenure line depending on the type of institution we end up working at.

Inside this process is grading. Students would prefer not to have to produce work. We’d often prefer not to have to grade that work. It can be a nasty situation on both ends.  Grading becomes even more tricky when we factor in what students expect and what ‘reality’ exists in the classroom.

We all explain the grading scale (some of us better than others) and how it breaks down into their work (or lack thereof).  This never cuts off the inevitable questions down the road, the confusion, the angst, resentment and arguing. Not one semester has gone by when I have not received a post-semester inquiry about a grade or a last-minute freak out.  I’d say this is true for all of us (if not, please share your secret).

For what it is worth, I try to explain during week 1 that an A does not mean you did your work and came to class. For those tasks, a C will be awarded. I explain that an A means you have exceeded expectations with some amount of distinction, gone the extra-mile, really devoted yourself to not just passing, but mastering, the content of the course.

This is often met with incredulous gasps of horror.

I’m not going to touch the reasons for this misconception of what an A is — not my area of education.  Their previous teachers from different levels of education work incredibly hard with scant respect from students, parents, and administration as it is.

What upsets me (actually physically and emotionally upsets me) are the situations that I’m going to go ahead and call emotional abuse. The article sums them up nicely. Things akin to: “I will lose my scholarship,”  “I will lose my financial aid,” “I will be barred from playing my sport, and then I won’t be able to afford school,”  “I will not get into my major.”  And the ultimate: “I will not graduate.” And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Ouch. Seriously. Logically, we all realize that we are not in control of the choices our students have made and that they must learn to manage their obligations academic, extra-curricular, and social.  But, we get the abuse nonetheless.  Thankfully, however, we do not have the level of parental interference (yet, it is increasingly more common that we do) that our colleagues in secondary education have.  I blatantly tell my students: I do not want to hear from your parents. Yes, you heard me. I do not want to hear from your parents short of an actual emergency situation where you are not able to speak for yourselves.  I then explain to them rationally that they are now in charge of their education. That I cannot actually, legally, speak to parents about student performance.  I use the big A word, accountability.  Conversely, I let them know that for all intents and purposes, I am a safe space for them. I’m not their friend, but if they need someone to talk to because something in their lives has become too much to manage on their own, they can come to me and I will help them find the resources through the school that they need.

So far, this tactic has worked nicely. No parent emails.

What also gets awkward, and I have encountered this at 2 institutions, is quiet department mandates that there should not be more than X students below X grade.  (Yikes, I thought this was college?)

Increasingly, however, I have students who are arguing B range grades. Not D.  Not C.  B range.  It was not so very long ago that I was an undergraduate. I considered a B a perfectly fine grade especially if I struggled with the topic.  I always shot for the A, but I also always knew what range my grade would be in before it was posted. I knew the caliber of my work as well as the course grading policy.

Students will always complain about grades. No surprise. Usually at the 18-21 age range they will also reduce anything difficult down to it being ‘stupid.’ I get that. I was incredibly grateful to see Ahmed Afzaal’s post (see above link) on our approach vs. their approach to grading.

This semester I will be starting off differently. I will cover the same points he covers in his article, reinforcing that we want to see them succeed, we do not look for reasons to punish them, and that grading is a tool to convey information about the level of their performance.

I think I might also ask them to not come to me with the doomsday proclamations I listed above, that in the end, it is unfair,uncomfortable, and ultimately, as the Vicomte de Valmont said, “ce n’est pas de ma faute.”

If you’ve had success in warding off the messiness of student grade confusion, stories of harrowing grade negotiating, or fool-proof methods, share with the group!

Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.


noun, plural ef-fron-ter-ies.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for two free samples.

2. an act or instance of this.


1705-15; < French effronterie, equivalent to Old French esfront shameless (es-exfront brow; see front) + -erie -ery

1. impertinence, impudence, cheek.

* * *

Many of us will be familiar, and indeed may be mulling over this word or its comrade-in-arms synonyms during this hectic time of calculation and notation. This morning, I awoke to a cheeky communiqué from a student exemplifying the meaning of this word. I have decided to reproduce the thrust of the message without its form, much like a translation. It should not take me aback, as they say. But as the dictionary confirms, the absolute  barefaced audacity threw me through a loop.

Hello title, 

This morning I looked at my grades and I see that I have a grade in subject. As of today, my cumulative GPA is number-point-numbers. I want to be on the Generic Honor Group and I would need a higher-number-than-I-have. Can you raise my grade to include decimal point-difference-number? 

Sincerely, me. 
sent from my ipad.

* * *

Well shoot, I was really, really hoping that you were insincere on this one. In fact, I was banking that you were facetious. I confess. I blinked a few times. I pet the cat. I went back to the kitchen to pour some coffee. Clearly, I was not expecting this. But, what was it precisely that I was not expecting? I’d like to think that I am not a rube. Students will always try to negotiate their grades – I don’t see this changing in the future, ever. Still…something about this message struck me. This message was different than the other messages I have received over the years.  What was it that marked this message as not belonging to the group? Ah, well, that would be the effrontery.  I would say most students have some sense of propriety, even if they often seem audacious by our standards. Usually, there is a negotiation involved in grade lamentation, non?  Something to the effect of:

Dear Herr God Doctor Professor, I saw my grade and I [woe-inspired appeal to your pity]. Is there any way I can [random request to produce more work after the semester ends] so that you can [give me an unfair advantage over my cohorts]?  [Shameless, desperate closing].  

I’m used to this type of request – I think it is safe to say we’re all used to this type of request. And, of course, circumstances mitigate our responses. Was there a traumatic event we’re aware of? Does this student deserve the benefit of the doubt? Sometimes, the answer is yes and we arrange for something, change the grading scale, remove assignments, add assignments. This is usually to keep the student from failing when life got in the way but they really did do their best to overcome it.

This instance is akin to elective surgery; to vanity purchases. This isn’t a matter of life or death, that is, of failing. This is an appeal to make one’s self look better. I was honestly embarrassed when reading. Not because a student shamelessly begged (though, there was no actual begging here, hence the label of effrontery). But because it was a baldfaced request to give me what I want.

No justification. No reasoning. No offering. Simply, give me what I want.

What disturbs me most? The seeming unawareness of the impropriety of the request – no indication that the student understands that such a request is 1) absolutely out of the question, and 2) brazenly inappropriate. How did I respond? I wanted to write an impassioned, three page letter about responsibility, obligation, results, behavior, rigor and the future. Instead, I wrote two emotionless lines:
Your grade is a product of the work produced and not something assigned. I cannot give you any grade but what you earned.

Students wanting better grades than what they earn is not new, not interesting, and in no way unique. What simultaneously disturbs me and makes me very tired is the lack of effort in the appeal itself.

I begin each semester with a talk about how a grade is calculated, preciesly what the weights are with a caveat that only the student can determine her or his final outcome. Apparently, this is not clear enough. What can we possibly do to curb this type of behavior? Do any of you have a fool-proof technique?

For now, I will be writing to ask for an example change in the definition.

1.  shameless or impudent boldness; barefaced audacity: She had the effrontery to ask for a grade she did not earn.

Insufficient comedy, low test score.

Or, sometimes we just need to whine.

Please note: there is nothing enlightened here. Well, perhaps there are a few worthy ideas. In the main, this is what I have opted for instead of reaching for the tequila.  

That’s right, the hell-bent race track to final grade submission. And so, not even a quarter of the way through the 900 + pages of final grading that I have on my desk. My spirits are dipping lower and lower.

I have just pre-heard the collective groan, just by mentioning the dirty “G” word. We’re all in this moment right now, or soon will be, or have just finished it.

Why? Accountability. I’ve heard a lot of


The rest of the post has been redacted. The poster took a walk, bought some junk food, got over his it’s-humid-and-I-hate-grading woes, and generally saw la vie en rose.  


Graduate reading courses: boon or bane?

Is the language exam requirement impractical for many? You tell me.

Private University asked me  to handle a summer Graduate Language for Reading course. This is one of those mixed situations where I stop and think: A new course to add to the CV!

This is immediately followed by: Ugh, will it do them any good? A reading course during the summer. That’s not a lot of time.  This is also an interruption to my personal summer research, reading etc plans.

Answered by: But… this will fund a potential research trip in August.

In short, I’m wary of summer language institutes, though I covered one of my research languages during a summer institute.  It was like being on one of those carnival rides where you lose all sense of time and focus: hard, fast, no view of the ground (while repeating a mantra of I hate language X, I hate language X.)  But, I passed. The fall back is that 1 year later, I remember so very little of the fast-paced grammar and translation we learned in that course. To be fair, I still have the grammar and the large dictionary and think with some fiddling I could muddle through things until I built my proficiency again.

As someone who does his own work in Romance language literature, I feel that the ability to read research in other languages is extremely important. I also recognize that whereas many fields absolutely need other-language research, some may not.

In an article for the Chronicle, Edward White lays out the central thoughts on the requirement in general: students fret, hassle, fail, get grumpy over this hurdle. Faculty recognizes the problem but generally we all agree it needs to stay. (I fall into this camp: can we really be researchers without the ability, or proof of an ability, to expand past our comfortably accessed research?) White proposes that we stop allowing students to meet the requirement with “trivial” course work (glorified grammar and syntax reviews mercifully conducted by language department faculty) and start getting tough to show that we take it seriously. Demonstrate proficiency or do not move on.  He proposes that we stop admitting students who don’t have proficiency before arriving. (I can hear the screaming on this one!) He says:

The second argument seems more persuasive than it actually is. It is that if we made foreign-language proficiency an admissions requirement, our graduate enrollments would decline, perhaps sharply. That might happen if some institutions took the step while many others did not. Then students who could not meet the admissions requirement at University A would not even apply there but would instead attend University B, which allows its graduate students to meet or pretend to meet the requirement after admission. University A would have to be prepared to lose some less-qualified students, but its higher standards would surely make it more attractive to some students and faculty members.

Is a summer reading course a boon or a bane? Without prior language experience, it has the potential to own your life for that period and be extremely frustrating.  On the other hand, getting it ‘out of the way’ during the summer months will stop it from interfering with your normal teaching/coursework.

Here’s Secret Blogging Seminar’s take on making it a more productive experience. 

What was your experience? Do you have language reading horror stories? Amazing success stories? Is there a ‘perfect’ language reading course?

And merrily did he…

… wrap up the semester at Private University with an out of class-time scheduled final review for four sections.  Public University ends classes in two weeks. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.  Not looking forward to the five (total) sections of finals I will be grading here in a week or so. But, I am thrilled for the end of the month. Uninterrupted reading, research, maybe a jaunt out of Big, Overbearing City for a while.

Interesting new reading on my primary author that delivers the rare gift of unique, cogent and lucid observations.  Every time I really hunker down into a new piece of scholarship that fascinates me, I am disappointed that I can only ever read for so long before other responsibilities force me to set the book down.  Any time I really engage my research I want to crawl into my cozy research hole and disavow the rest of the world. Given my continued enthusiasm for reading, writing and learning (I scoff at you, burn out!), I think my project would move much, much faster if I could really give into it and clear my plate of  the teaching. I’d miss my students terribly, though. They have a way of keeping me closer to the ground, less cerebral in my daily life and of much better humor (not to mention keeping my social skills honed).

When it all gets to be too much, the teaching, the keeping up with the research, I usually develop a temporary obsession as a pressure bleed off in my down time.  The current obsession takes the form of documentaries (NOVA, things on physics, space) and I’m working through Hanks’s From the Earth to the Moon.  Current Public Transit travel reading: Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.  

What does everyone else do to bleed off the pressure when their minds just shut down?