Marking the Semester’s Enough

I’ve asked students to write a semester-capping reflection in-class, today marking the end of the Winter 2018 semester at EMU and, with it, the final session of WRTG121: Composition II: Researching the Public Experience. The prompt occasions a letter noting takeaways in terms of attitudes and habits relating to writing, command of language, and grasp of research processes, although it’s a stacked ask insofar as its privileging ground and anchorage qua affirmations of footing, solidity, presumptions of growth that value lodging over dislodging, mooring over unmooring. Another way: might just as well be asking about attitude-habit upheavals, a churn of language, ungrasp of research processes. Whatever of the teaching-learning paradoxes, here are a few of the takeaways for me:

  • Our curriculum moves swiftly from establishing researchable questions and attempting, with the aid of systematic note-keeping, a brief proposal and cursory lit review, next to carrying out a microstudy documented with research memos that adheres to an appropriate research method, and finally to a pair of presentational moves, one in-class (elevator pitch to peers with careful consideration of slidecraft), one at the Celebration of Student Writing. Much of the semester felt to me to be balanced and right-paced, although at the end, two presentational gestures left one (the CSW) lagging secondarily a bit, without enough time to develop it fully.
  • That said, the curriculum remains promising in that there surfaced (for most?) a more obvious and followable connection among an evolving researchable question (or series of questions), sources gathered and annotated in association with the question, the enactment of methods chosen as ways of following rigorously the question out into the world, and the variations on presenterly circulation that care for translation of a nuanced research process into something shareable. Obvious and followable: this, according to students who informally related not having especially much experience with being guided to undertake research writing this way.
  • Our program’s bundle, Understanding Rhetoric and EasyWriter, primes this approach, introducing key ideas and standing readily by as consultatory resources for reminders and support, though at moments this reminding and support isn’t quite enough due to my assumptions about everyone’s remembering these materials as backdrop. I forget to say, use these books in this way (even after reading selections or pitching and modeling usefulnesses at the semester’s outset). Thus, the consultatory function of these books, this semester, seemed to fade, seemed to follow a declining use-trend, when I’d imagined an increase, expansion, uptick.
  • In future semesters, when teaching a class like this one, I may try to do more to poll students before the semester begins, to think together and ahead about thematic orientations. We ventured into environmental justice this semester, but I’m not convinced that the explicit and direct attention we devoted to EJ at the outset sustained as the semester wore on. It felt to me like the most prominent concerns of EJ quieted as our efforts shifted to more tightly tailored research projects; with this is that inevitable tension between the general and the acute, between the frame and the pixel.
  • Early-semester one on one conferences continue to be tone-setting for interpersonal rapport that builds as a semester goes. This practice is reasonably enculturated in the FYWP at EMU, carried out section for section for section, but it’s a practice I’d like to extend with focal intention to other classes I teach, doing more with these scheduled conversations while also thinking about how to keep them student-led and only in minor ways repetitive.

That is it. Enough for forty minutes of in-class writing. Enough to say the semester that was, was. Enough to mark even lightly a few of the details I’ll carry for a while hereforward.

Fall Backglance

I turned in grades almost ten days ago. And ten days has left me enough time to defrag what was the Fall 2011 semester (also enough time to see The Muppets, watch Breaking Bad through season 3, and finish Shields’ Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes). The highlights follow, in no particular order.

  • I taught three classes, 50+ students altogether: a new (for me) grad class, ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology, and two sections of ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology. 505 went well for the most part; I’ll probably return to Metaphors We Live By and Science in Action when I teach it again in Fall 2012. But I’ll replace The Social Life of Information with Kuhn, Polanyi (lectures), or Darwin. Or Mol, if I can ever get around to reading Body Multiple. Maybe add some of the “rhetoric as epistemic” conversation.
  • The two sections of ENGL328 ran back to back on Mondays and Wednesdays. One section was in a preferable lab; the other section was in one of the worst teaching labs I’ve ever set foot in. A horrible space. And this was an improvement–an upgrade–from the space into which it was originally scheduled. Consequently I had more conversations than I can count with IT folks about why certain lab configurations work differently than others for teaching. This was one of the most nagging and unavoidable frustrations of the semester.
  • These two classes were as night and day as any two I can remember teaching. Same projects. Same readings. But drastically different personalities.
  • My teaching was observed three times in the second week of the semester, and the timing, while somewhat less than ideal in my opinion, had everything to do with the October 15 deadline for my third-year review materials. Why less than ideal? Well, it’s plain to me that my classes are stronger, move lively, and more representative as a scene of teaching and learning in the last one-third of the semester than in the first two weeks. Semesters follow arcs; relationships develop. The observations were overall fairly favorable nevertheless.
  • Other than teaching, the first half of the semester was consumed with preparing the third-year review binders (which went in without incident and, by all appearances have been well received at the various stop-offs they’ve reached thus far) and planning and organizing the WIDE-EMU Conference.
  • The conference went well, especially considering it was an experiment in conference-hosting with no costs to anyone, but had I to do it over again, I don’t think I’d both plan a conference and give a talk at that conference–on the same day third-year review materials are due. Too much. Everything went fine, but it left me sapped for the second half of the semester.
  • In the second half of the semester, I gave a “Tech Talk” to our Art Department on “A Quick Rhetoric of QR Codes.” Basically it was 30 minutes of examples, how-to, and a plea for more discriminating uses. I also carried a digital-installation-qua-“poster” into the HASTAC Conference in Ann Arbor in early December.
  • I attended commencement, heard George Gervin’s address and saw a half dozen students I’d had in class recently accept their diplomas.
  • I helped the Honors College revamp its Presidential Scholars essay prompts and assessment tool (as a member of the HC Advisory Council). I also interviewed Presidential Scholar candidates in early December.
  • I touched up the Masters Degree Consortium site, added a map, and more importantly, collaborated on a survey and all of the required IRB solicitations so we can proceed with circulating the survey in early-mid January.
  • We released two issues of EM-Journal, one on the first day of the semester, and the second on December 1 at the Celebration of Student Writing.
  • At our symposium on pursuing graduate education in written communication, I gave a short spiel titled, “Graduate School in Ten Understatements.” Tricky to offer one-size-fits-most advice that avoids 1) being discouraging and 2) meaningless platitudes.
  • Nudged along a proposal for an online version of ENGL326 I’ll likely teach in the spring term. I think it’s finally, officially approved, and I spent a couple of hours this morning on the course materials.
  • And then there were a small handful of proposals and ms. submissions at various stages that crossed my desk, that waggled through my in and outbox–one ms. revised and accepted, another conditionally accepted, and two different chapter proposals (one accepted; the other in the eds.’ hands).
  • For the first time in a long time, I didn’t submit any proposals for a spring conference. No C&W. No RSA. And that’s in small part because travel funds will have long since dried up by then, I have a busy CCCC docket in March, and I’m usually too fatigued by May to feel all Let’s Go! about academic conferences. Might keep an eye out for the WPA Albuquerque CFP though. Or, if there’s a Great Lakes THATCamp this spring, might check it out.

Dawn of the New Semester

New semester dawns in a little over one week. The syllabi for ENGL328 and ENGL505 are ready (I have two sections of the first, one section of 505, plus an independent study). The grad course is also a new prep for me. Our graduate students in Written Communication at EMU aren’t obligated to follow a sequence, but ENGL505 is positioned more or less as the first course (i.e., lowest numbered course) in the Professional Writing track. We’re reading a short stack of articles, a few books, and working through a couple of different projects that ought to familiarize everyone with selected frameworks for doing rhetoric: dramatisms, stases, appeals, situation, and process/procedure (I realize the slash in this last item stands rather like a stick of dynamite, judging by Ian Bogost’s recent entry, which I’d like to come back to one day soon in an entry of my own).

ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology is a course I’ve taught 8 times in two years (twice online in the shortened spring term; you might not realize this, but 8 is actually a vertical infinity symbol). I think of it like this: if ENGL328 was a horse and my other teaching assignments were its rivals in a horse race, it would have lapped every other course seven times. Or infinity times, depending on how you decipher such ambiguous alphanumeric symbols. Oh, de doo-da day.

Between now and Wednesday, Aug. 31, the first day of classes, we are also unpacking our boxed and binned office wares in the refurbished Pray-Harrold. We can get that underway this Wednesday. And then in the week between this Wednesday and the start of classes, I have—as of now—9.5 hours of meetings showing on the calendargh. To be fair, our annual department retreat (shouldn’t retreat be set in left-leaning italics?) has the biggest share with its six hours, and the others are on different days. And there’s a good chance I will have to ditch one of the other meetings because local school children don’t have their first day until Sept. 6, and Is. starts Kindergarten. It’s a question with choices: What to do? A. Hire a sitter. B. Skype. C. Take her to the meeting with me. D. Go for ice cream.

One last note about the new semester. I mentioned that we begin on a Wednesday this fall. For Monday evening classes, such as the one I am teaching, this means we will have our first meeting on Sept. 12. The university calendaring committee adjusted for this by setting the last day of classes on Monday, December 12. Exam week begins on Tuesday the 13th and runs a full week. Just wanted to note that it feels odd (especially when figuring out a class schedule) to end on a Monday late in the semester. Call me old fashioned, but I after creating schedules for this fall’s classes, I’ve realized how much I prefer semesters with x number of whole weeks starting on a Monday.

Precarity

At this time of year–because it is semester’s end, the last Friday of Fall 2010 (before final exam week)–I am thinking again about patterned precarity. “Patterned” because the academy’s clock punctuates our lives with fairly arbitrary (if systemic) endpoints. That semesters end means for many students an intensified two-week window near the end of time when a flurry of deadlines, for admittedly complicated reasons, amount to a heap of dustbin deliverables and an even taller heap of stress. I know I am generalizing: it doesn’t always go this way, nor does it have to go this way. But often it does. End of semester grunt/strain/anguish is palpable, thick in the air.

Especially so this semester, it seems.

E., my friend in Kansas City, shared an anecdote with me once about the learner’s mindset and the thrill of close calls. The story I (mis)remember goes something like this: in Kaffa, the region of Ethiopia known as the original growthplace of coffee, there emerged an astonishingly widespread practice among teenagers of something like “fender glancing.” Fender glancing is a game of chicken with moving cars. Basically, participants in this activity enjoy a rush by close brushes with automobiles. A near miss is invigorating–literally life-giving. I made it! As you might imagine, this does not always turn out well. Almost being hit by a car–when the choreography goes badly–can be lethal or at the very least bone-breaking. E. explained how he saw many correspondences to this in those he was teaching (to play soccer), particularly when they were bored.

Thrill seeking isn’t a new discovery or even a new cultural phenomenon elucidated by the derivative (i.e., friend of a friend said; an admittedly lazy, heard-about method) anthropology above. But it nevertheless reminds me about revaluing the relationship between what happens all along, in a given semester, and what happens at the end, as well as rethinking how practices in a given course must spill beyond the time-bounded container of fifteen weeks. In other words, for teaching, how can we redistribute intensive encounters so that a class doesn’t reduce to an ultimate showdown at semester’s end?

Desktop

Desk Before Semester

Twenty-four hours before the first class of the semester, my dorm-office deskscape reveals few surprises to me: books, two with cracked spines patiently waiting for me to finish this blog entry; an empty water bottle, an almost-empty coffee cup; a John Cleese YouTube video I am considering showing tomorrow in ENGL326 (for the tortoise shell concept); a flower cutout (or, rather, for the semioticians, this is not a flower); a television set I have not turned on since the World Cup; a wall calendar set to the correct month for the first time since May. This desk–the same one I worked at last year although then I was in a different office space–bears more short stacks of unshelved books than I would prefer. This condition, the result of reading somewhat less this summer than I at some point thought would be possible.

Maths of the Everyday

Number of tow truck drivers I kidded with about the snow on Monday morning: 1
Number of blocked shots I hope to tally at this evening’s weekly pick-up game: 8
Number of WC consultations earlier today that had me wishing our table had a
dish ‘o mints on it: 1
Number of students who probably thought it was me who needed a mint: Same
Hour of the day Is. decided everyone in the house should start their Tuesday,
Deepvember 18: <6 a.m.
In epoch
format: 1226988000
Students missing from this morning’s class: 3
Number of meetings I’ve attended this week: 2
Number of those meetings where pizza, sodas, and salad were provided: 1
Number of people on campus who today asked me about being on the job market and
how that’s going: 7
Number of points scored by Team Charmin in the Fantasy Football Week Eleven
match-up: 80
Coincidentally, the number of minutes I strode on the elliptical machine in the
last two days: 80
Of the eleven emails currently in my syr.edu inbox, the number with "writing" in
the subject line: 4
Number of class sessions remaining this semester: 4
Number of two-hour consulting sessions remaining in the semester: 6
# of times I can type "number" in a single entry before I get lazy and resort to
the symbol: 12
# of minutes until I’m supposed to start rustling up some foodstuff for dinner: -5

Grand total: 1,226,988,211

Day Five

Like a lot of schools, SU’s first day of classes is tomorrow. But I
don’t teach until Tuesday, so the plan is to jam on the diss in the morning and
then head over to The Great New York
State Fair
for the afternoon and early evening (a dinner of deep fried
Oreos?). Special happenings at the fairgrounds: Day five, which means
Senior Citizens’ Day and Dairy Day. I’m too young to capitalize on the
first one (although, what about this here sun spot the shape of Onondaga Lake?),
but there will be milk to chug and ice cream to slurp down. Also, cheese.
And bunnies in cages, goats on leashes, etc.

And then I teach on Tuesday morning, after the new semester’s dust has
finally started to settle.