Sunday, March 29, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015

"Mist closing in, getting thicker...

...One drops out, becoming quicker
Lights grow dim, they glimmer
The chances smaller, the odds are slimmer
Dot dash, dip flash, don't crash
Loosening my grip
Be sure to tread carefully
Steering a passage
Finding a line
Cross to comply, crossply
Progressive acceleration, skidding but the expression
Remains pan, radiators for all
Radial, I'm still in control, I understand, a hand, a hand moved me
Driven by self-propulsion
Turning right across the stream
The risks increased with sustained leisure
Courting death, so ill at ease…"

Monday, March 23, 2015


Some of this week’s readings on grading are heartening. For some reason it does help to read that grading is such a formidable and at times exhausting ritual for so many other instructors. As ambivalent as I have been about Lang’s book thus far, most of what he says in the first pages of his chapter on assignments and grading were things that I appreciate hearing. Although I am yet to have a student contest a grade on an assignment, I can completely relate to what Lang calls the “painful realization” that many (if not most) of us will “never stop wondering, at least occasionally, about the legitimacy of [our] grades—or about the legitimacy of a particular grade that” we have given (128). 

I have taught four sections of 1020 thus far (I’m on the eleventh week of my fifth section), and I can think of two specific final grades that I’ve given that I remain a little unsure of still. My unsureness about the first grade boils down to the question of grading based on “effort” versus—I guess what one would call—“quality,” although I’m not sure quality is the best word for what I am talking about here. In the teaching orientations and in my cohort’s first practicum, I remember repeatedly having it emphasized to us that we should be grading primarily on the quality of the work and the level of skill shown in it, and not on effort. I think I grade based on effort to at least a slightly greater degree than what some of the instructors running practicum and the orientations seemed to prefer (prescribe?). I know the idea of basing our grades more on the quality of and the skill shown in the work is to—at least teaching 1020—make sure we are preparing students for what comes next in the course sequence. But I’d like to think that perhaps giving a student's effort a bit more weight in my grading, also means grading based on some degree of confidence that I have that a student will rise to the demands of what they face, whether the work they do is A material or not. 

“Sal” was a student I had, who worked his ass off, was always on time, clearly did all of the work and reading, took part in class discussions, and did all of the other things that we consider part of being an engaged, attentive, and caring student. “Sal” was also an ESL student and experienced a lot of the difficulties in writing that one encounters with some ESL students. At EAA time, he was right on the fence of C and C-, but did have a C. I had the normal conference with him that I do with all of my students who receive EAA grades or who are on the fence like "Sal" was, and made sure that he arranged visits to the Writing Center. When I went through and calculated his final grade at the end of the semester, sure enough he came up with a low C, but according to the numbers, he did get the C. This made sense to me, because regardless of the faults in his writing his effort still should have counted to some degree (enough to warrant the C), because it meant he understood the extra work he needed to do to improve his writing and that he was willing to do this work. To this day, based solely on his capacities as reflected in the "quality" of the work he turned in, I am unsure if sending him off to 3010 was the right thing, and if he was truly prepared for it. But I am sure through his performance in that class that he would work his ass off to do what is required of him in 3010, and this seemed right. No, his writing was not the best, and needed work, but he cared, and showed up everyday, and was enthusiastic, and worked hard. I guess you could say that the numbers helped me make a decision that I would have had much more difficulty making otherwise. For me at least, the numbers don’t lie, and they are also a way to guarantee a kind of egalitarianism in my courses. 

The second example of a grade that I’m still unsure of, derives from a time when I gave an A- to a student that I still think maybe should have gotten the A. “Zoe” was what one might call an ideal student—strong reader and writer, excited to be in school, incredibly well read after having just left high school (for instance, she was already a Gramsci adherent and loved her Zinn and Chomsky), loved to talk and always had valuable contributions during class discussions. “Zoe” missed one of the class reflections, and even after I sent my normal email giving an extra day or two on it, still didn’t turn it in. When it came time to calculate “Zoe’s” final grade—even with that missing reflection—I was totally surprised to see that she received an A-. Even if I rounded up, as I always do, her final grade was still an A-. I tussled for a while with just giving her another point, because she seemed to deserve an A based on quality and effort, but the numbers kept it egalitarian, and once I started thinking about changing her grade, I realized I would have probably had to change others. Instead, I stuck to what the numbers said she deserved, and that way I know that things remained egalitarian.

On a final note—or perhaps as kind of a parting shot—something about Cathy Davidson’s technological cheerleading rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s fine to be aware of what she’s writing and trying, but I do not see how her romanticized utopianism when it comes to evaluation has a single practical thing to say to me, as a second year GTA in the field of “English” teaching freshman composition. I disagree wholeheartedly with her constant insistence of our period being some kind of technologically mediated watershed for human understanding, communication, education, and sociality, as she rants in the “Follow-Up” to her first post. I won’t quote Jonathan Crary again, but I do find his description of the engineered maintenance of this unending sense of “transition” to be spot-on. So, when Davidson repeatedly goes on about how we “are now at one of the great, transitional, transformative ages in human history,” I find this declaration on her part to simply be overly dramatic and whimsically delusional…

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


…is the Reason

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Who am I?"

I went into my reading of Donna LeCourt and Anna Rita Napoleone’s article “Teachers with(out) Class: Transgressing Academic Social Space through Working-Class Performances,” expecting (hoping) to encounter some kindred thoughts on coming from a poor and/or working-class background into teaching and graduate work that would speak to some of my own experiences, but I did not feel like I could relate to much of what they discussed. Once again, I think this might have a lot to do with differences in gender—which they themselves suggest could be a possibility on page 103 when they ask, “how would these narratives be different if told by working class men?” 

As I’ve also stated in the past, I think another reason I can not relate to many of their descriptions of personal insecurity and anxiety is because I am as far along in life as I am, and my character is—for good or ill—etched in stone and I have perhaps fewer questions in my own head (and heart) regarding who I am at this point. Nobody tells me that I can do this, but I cannot do that, or I can be this, but I cannot be that, or because I've devoted my life thus far to being this, that consequently I cannot now decide to also be that. Although, like most of us, I by all means experience moments of tension and anxiety at times here in the academy, it has nothing to do with worrying that I don’t belong here, as it were, but more significantly (and perhaps less superficially) it almost always results from simply worrying about not being on point—in other words, not being prepared or not knowing the material being discussed. This is downright terrifying to me at times, in fact, and as some of you good people know, when I stumble when I’m in the midst of trying to work something out or during an engagement with material being discussed I definitely experience physical reactions. For instance, my ears turn bright red and I sweat like I’m running a lap—and perhaps, in a sense, I am. Also, as I’ve stated before, I’ve never really experienced this kind of tension or anxiety teaching—only in seminars and my own courses. As long as I’m prepared to teach my classes—and I always am—I’ve felt almost as natural in front of the classes that I have been fortunate enough to have taught thus far, as I do skateboarding through Hart Plaza…almost.

With all of that said, at points in LeCourt and Napoleone’s article, they really lose me, if you want to know the truth, and I have to admit that my notes and annotations are decorated with sarcastic comments and quips. I get that it was part of her research, but Napoleone’s description of her discussions with her students about, well, her, sound a tad cringe-worthy, and a bit awkward and uncomfortable for her students. Who knows, maybe they weren't, but, devoting a class to talking about her own accent (88)? I mean, talk about a “teacher-centered” approach. I have no doubt that at least some of my own students see me at the beginning of the semester and have no idea what to expect. I put my own distinct brand of academic unconventionality out there before I even meet my classes, when I email them the link to our class wiki before our first meeting, at which point they can see by my “About Your Instructor” page that I may not fit neatly into any kind of preconceived notions they may have about university instructors. But once we meet and they see that it’s all business in the classroom, I’m yet to have a single student lay some shit on me about not being able to figure out what they’re there to do and what I’m there to do, because I have a bunch of tattoos, bad teeth, and I tie my pants up with a shoelace. I respect my students and I take my teaching very seriously, and this is clear from the first class on, and it seems to me that once this is clear to my students everything else just falls into place. The same applies as the semester moves along, and our familiarity grows. I can sit and casually talk with students before class about—for instance—the new album Freddie Gibbs did with Madlib (Piñata), and joke and talk shit, but when it’s time for the business of the class to begin, and for them to occupy their role as student, and me my role as teacher, I’m yet to have a student not recognize when it's time to "get into character," and then do so.

By the time LeCourt and Napoleone actually get around to providing examples of what they consider to be “working-class” behavior, language, and mannerisms in the first place, and what “performing” this role might look like, and by the time they are warning that “Performing ‘class’ in the classroom…also involves much risk for the body that seems not to fit academic norms,” I was anxious to see what “working class” pedagogy—according to them at least—looks like (87). Because, I’ll be honest, when they’re talking about the potentially “transgressive nature” of an instructor “performing class” in the classroom, I had begun to get this picture in my head of Joe Pesci in Easy Money:

So, beyond their argument that "performing" working-class can be "transgressive" in the academy (OK), I’m left with the assumption that much of what LeCourt and Napoleone are describing has to do with not only coming from a working-class background, but being a woman and coming from a working class background. Which is fair enough, I know it makes a difference. I guess. I mean, there’s a lot about this article that makes me wonder if I’m a bit more oblivious to—actually, indifferent about—what other people think about me and my place in the academy than I think I am. I know one thing in this regard, I wouldn’t have survived a day at the University of Chicago if I worried, at all, about any of the people who feel threatened by my presence here. I don’t ultimately know what to make of Napoleone having to leave LeCourt’s seminar (97). “[S]he left because of her intense emotional response to the discussion,” LeCourt suggests, “and the way that discussion left no room to discuss her own past, oppositional behaviors, and how they emerged from a class consciousness.” Oh word? First of all, that must have been some “discussion” that did not allow for a participant’s “past [and] oppositional behaviors”—i.e. that person’s perspective—to come into play. Second, she left? I just don’t get it. I thought one of her points was that being working-class meant having a kind of thick skin...

Monday, March 2, 2015

“I’m stricken with a cerebral malaise…”

I love the idea of students approaching literary texts through the lens of their own experiences. I love the idea of blurring the lines between in here (the classroom) and out there (the world in which our students do the vast majority of their learning). I also love the idea of obscuring the boundary between us (instructors) and them (students) in the classroom and of correspondingly teaching in a way that “does not exaggerate the gap between what we are able to do and what our students are able to do as readers and interpreters” (Blau 96). So, there are elements of M. H. Dunlop’s argument for a “text-based approach” to teaching literature that are compelling, although I think it’s foolish to totally disregard authorial intention. “Instead of awaiting the arrival of meaning,” Dunlop suggests as regards textual criticism, “students can mount critiques of the ideologies or beliefs encoded in texts and thereby construct connections between [not only] the world and the text,” but between their world(s) and the text. 

I know that he is discussing “literary analysis,” in a more general sense, but the impulse to bring the lives and experiences of the students into their engagements with literary texts echoes Sheridan D. Blau when he writes concerning “the merely mechanical gestures of literary analysis produced by our students” (103).  Arguing that these “mechanical” readings and writings from students are the product of the kind of “techniques of analysis associated with New Critical ‘close reading’” (102), Blau explains that “when asked to interpret or comment on a literary work as an academic assignment, [students] tend to cancel out their own native intelligence and capacity to make sense of or read events they encounter in their own lives in favor of interpretive moves they have been taught in school and that they assume are required of them when faced by the verbal icons of literary texts” (103).

Some of my favorite lines and passages from short stories/writing that I look forward to having the chance to engage with my own classes in the future, are lines and passages that shook me to my core when I first encountered them because they seemed to speak to some of my own experiences (whether I could elucidate the connections or not) and to that real-world shit that I believe literature can be an invaluable lens to consider. For instance:

  • The passage in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" after the Misfit has gunned down the grandmother in the ditch and he says: "She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
  • The passage in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" when Sonny's non-stop piano playing has gotten to a point where it is driving everyone in Isabel's home crazy, but they knew not to stop him because even his brother "sensed, from so many thousands of miles away, that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life."
  • The passage in Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea For Captain John Brown" after Thoreau asks "Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung?" and he then answers: "While these things are being done, beauty stands veiled and music is a screeching lie."

On a final note, after nearly ten years of intensive academic work here in the field of “English,” I find myself often unsure of the practical value of what we (I) do in here, so I don’t think I’m as bothered as others may be, by what Erick Kelemen identifies as “the potentially destabilizing force” (126) of something like textual criticism. I think it will be OK… 
___________________  _____  _______________________  ______  

"Oh where oh where can jah love be now
My dear, it's here in the underground
Inside the hearts of your own children"