Thursday, December 22, 2011

The unimaginable zero summer

One of the odd things about being on an academic calendar is the way it suddenly stops and starts.  And I do mean suddenly.  Every semester manically speeds up near the end and then--just when it's moving at breakneck speed-- everything stops.  There's no crash or screech, no deceleration.  Just a complete and immediate stop.  Silence. You go back into the office to get something and no one is there.

I never deal well with these transitions.  No matter how many projects I line up to prepare for next semester, they always get shoved aside.  I end up reading a half-dozen books, eating too much, watching old movies and being generally unproductive.  If it were summer I would jump in the car and find a trout stream to waste time.  At least that way I would have the illusion of productivity.  But everything lies just on the verge of freezing as the world slides between late fall and full-blown winter.  All of the fish are slumbering in the depths.  Me too.

Odd time of year.  Eliot really captured the "in-betweeness" and contrast of such moments in Little Gidding:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

He do the police in different voices

A while back I blogged on an effort to build more intrinsic motivators into my classes (see Getting Better All the Time ).  I had students select personal goals and coached them on those goals.  I even built in a little self-evaluation into the grade and a celebration at the end of the course to recognize progress and growth.

While I still think this is a good idea, I have to admit it's been singularly ineffective this semester.  For whatever reason (my lack of planning, skill deficiencies in my students, bad course design) far  too many students in my classes have been ill-prepared, absent, late and sloppy this semester.  I can't recall a term in which so many students have performed so poorly.

It's been so bad that the small group of students who are actually doing the work delegated one of their own to speak to me about those who consistently come unprepared to take part in group work.  Unfortunately, the policies I built into my syllabus are set for the semester.  I have to live with them.

Next semester, though, I'm reverting to playing bad cop: show up without the text and you'll be asked to leave.  Don't have your rough draft, and it's a zero for the assignment.  Miss more than three classes and your grade goes down a full letter for each additional absence.  Try to skip and email in the assignment, no'p.  It's a zero.   This is a cattle-prod approach to education that I hate, but I'm going to do it anyway.

I so want it to be about the work and not the enforcement policies, but when I have students come to me complaining that their class mates brag about never doing the reading, what choice do I have? 

So it's time to put a bit of stick around.  I mentioned this in class the other day and one of my students laughed.  "A leopard can't change his spots," he snorted. 

We'll see.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...