Monday, December 31, 2012

End-of-year musical wrap-up

I haven't posted lately just because things have been pretty quiet.  Winter break is on: sleeping in, long nights and dark days full of snow – holy crapola, did you know it snows a ton in Cornstate? – and leisurely syllabus planning, manuscript prep, and most luxurious of all, reading.  But since the year is ending, why not post some more music and attempt to construct a narrative of 2012 with it?

January: I listened to this album over and over this past winter, when I had begun the new year on a very low note.  I owe Colin Meloy one for this. 

February: Like I said.

March:  I've been a Gillian Welch fan since the late 1990s.  She and David Rawlings may never really outdo their work on Time (The Revelator), but the album they put out last year, The Harrow and the Harvest, was pretty damn good anyway.  Listened to it a lot as well this winter.

April: Landed my current job, and enjoyed a very brief fling.  Fiona Apple's album wasn't yet released, but what the heck.

May:  Nifty album.  Good tonic for heartbreak.

June: Let us now depart from recent album releases and emotional review.  I just want to highlight some music that I recently acquired, and am enjoying.  But I can tell you a story about this one: when I went to scout housing in Tinytown this summer, I heard a Nashville cover of this song in a restaurant.  Honestly, the cover could have been worse, but I was annoyed not to hear the original, superior recording by Sonia Dada.  I went back to my hotel room and tried to purchase the mp3, to no avail: it did not exist.  I was wroth.  I just happened to check Amazon again this week, and found it, newly transformed into mp3 form!

July: Damien Rice is a strange brew, for my taste.  I question some of his stylistic choices, but his songs are pleasing anyway.  This is probably my favorite from his album, O.

August: Ray LaMontagne is another artist I have mixed feelings about.  I think he falls back on a small bag of tricks a little too often, and frankly, a lot of his lyrics are pretty dumb.  Lucky for him that he has a great voice and pretty good session musicians backing him up.  (Am I the only one who thinks that LaMontagne is in danger of turning into another Van Morrison someday?)

September: Death Cab for Cutie has grown on me slowly over time.  I just bought Narrow Stairs after listening to much of it on Pandora.  This song is what really sold it for me.  Incredibly depressing, but too good and trenchant not to love.  (NB: I really am not depressed nowadays.  My taste in music has always been like this.)

October: As much as I like Sarah Jarosz's work, I must guiltily admit that I tend to favor her exquisite cover versions of other people's songs.  She's got a bunch of great ones, but this might be the most flawlessly beautiful.

November: Finally, a double dose of yet another of this year's musical obsessions of mine, Crooked Still.  I occasionally feel like Aoife O'Donovan should be extraordinarily grateful for amplification technology, since her sweet little voice would be completely swallowed up in a concert setting with a full suite of instruments.  But with the mikes in place, it's a nice combo.  Crooked Still is especially good at arranging old fiddle tunes, in my opinion.  I want to jig around my kitchen every time I hear one of these songs.

December: Seriously, they do fun things with old-timey fiddle tunes!  (Have you noticed that I'm a sucker for cello music?  I've only recently figured that out.)

What will the new year bring, anyway?  More of the good, less of the bad is my hope.  I hope that the unbloggable misery of this past year will soon be a distant memory, and that the little and not-so-little triumphs that I share on this blog will multiply.  And, thinking of some good friends who are themselves on the market for the first time, I hope that others of you will also have some worthwhile triumphs to share.

And for heaven's sake, come and visit!  I have a couch!  It's comfy to sleep on!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Failure, debt, and post-admissions laissez-faire

The New York Times has another depressing piece about higher education in America today, and this one caught my eye more than most of them do.  I have seen more students like the ones described since I began teaching than I could count.  Mostly at Dear Old University and Ghosttown U., as one would expect from big state schools, but I had a few of them this past semester at Cute-as-a-Button University, too.  And they generally did not do well. 

In one particular case, although I will go light on details out of sensitivity, I saw early on that a student – who appeared to be from poor circumstances and, more to the point, very much unsocialized to the norms of either white middle-class collegiate society or even modest academic achievement in college – was tanking.  Stu was already skipping classes just a few weeks in, and tended to sleep through the rest.  (In this case, I knew that a particular extracurricular athletic obligation was probably responsible for Stu's persistent exhaustion.)  Stu didn't even respond to me when I emailed saying that the two of us needed to sit down and figure out what was going wrong, and how to fix it.  Grades were abysmal.  I was alarmed, and let Stu's academic advisor know what was going on.  The advisor said to me, "Yeah, Stu is just lost, I think." 

What I wanted to respond was, "WELL, FUCKING FIND STU, THEN."

Maybe I missed some serious conversations behind closed doors, but from my perspective, the entire university simply allowed a student who needed a lot of socialization and active guidance to drift along.  It felt like the old Herb Block cartoon of Eisenhower as an idle fire chief.  Given the performance I saw, I'd be surprised if Stu were around CBU a year from now.  I expect that Stu will turn into another one of these statistics: a poor student given little or no guidance, unable to figure out how to hack into this racially inflected but ultimately class-structured zone of privilege, and left to leave CBU ignominiously amid a multitude of failing marks and mired in student loan debt as a result of not maintaining the academic credentials to validate the aid package that Stu probably receives. 

Let's be generous to CBU for a moment and acknowledge that the entire institution is struggling to live within its means nowadays, and that every component of student advising and guidance at CBU is chronically shorthanded.  Historically, CBU never worried much about advising, because virtually the entire student body was drawn from the ranks of the unambitious middle classes of Cornstate who went there because Mom and Dad went there.  You don't need to advise students who aspire only to mediocrity.  Now that CBU is trying to pump up its academic profile and compete on the national level, there's a lot of areas that need to be all but rebuilt from scratch.  Advising is clearly one of them.

From what I've seen at CBU, there's yet another problem that the NYT article doesn't address.  CBU has a distressing tendency to admit students who are not properly qualified to go to CBU.  That's not to say that these students are not smart, or that they couldn't be made ready for CBU.  But such students are thrown into the academic milieu unprepared, with neither the necessary catch-up work nor the necessary emotional/practical guidance, and the school seems utterly astonished every time such a student goes down in flames.  I know that those college ranking systems track the percentage of admitted students who return for a second year, as well as those who graduate within four years, six years, etc.  If CBU is so pumped up to act like a nationally ranked SLAC, then why the hell do they stop caring about these students the moment the admissions office sends them the fat envelope?  Even at the most cynical, heartless level of calculation, such a practice damages the school itself, not just the hapless students who fail out of it. 

I'm getting some ideas about how this could be remedied within the institution's practical ability to do so, but I'll hold off on that until I've been here a little longer, and have seen a bit more of the sausage factory.  Meanwhile, I'm frustrated that the university is haphazardly and callously manipulating these students' lives, and leaving them to their fate a year or two after admission, with five figures of debt they can't repay, and no credentials – or even learning – to show for it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Music to soothe the soul

Before you worry, let me assure you that my soul is actually in decent shape lately.  I just felt like posting some music I've been listening to lately.

(BTW: YouTube has been dreadfully slow at my apartment the last day or so.  Has anyone else noticed this, or is my internet on the fritz again?)

A random chain of links from song to song got me to this gem.  Dare I say that I prefer it to Joni Mitchell's original?  I'm particularly impressed with this cello arrangement for drawing out that mournful Celtic drone.  Now that I hear it, I marvel that I didn't miss it before.

Another fun cover version that I learned about from Pandora.

And this one I just can't stop listening to.  I bought this album a few weeks ago, and I've been obsessing over it since.  People have been tripping out on Fiona Apple's oh-so-sexy voice for over a decade, but I don't think she gets enough credit as a composer.  Not songwriter, mind you, but composer.  Can you imagine what the score for this song must look like?  (Plus, listen for the third repeating lyric that creeps in midway, after the first two have already interwoven themselves: "You can relax around me.")

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Essays for the untutored

I haven't had a drink in a solid week, and I am grumpy.  I'm fighting a rather stubborn ear/sinus infection – with multiple antibiotics, yay! – that has the unpleasant side effect of making me wake up dizzy every morning as my middle ears try to right themselves.  I have to budget extra time in the mornings nowadays if I plan to drive anywhere, since it often takes an hour before my head is steady enough for me to get behind the wheel.  Fun.

I'm trying to distract myself from my grumblings by focusing on my winter break work, since I cranked out the last of my grading a few days ago.  Aside from trying to assemble some reading lists for syllabi, I'm hoping to re-tool the syllabus for my intermediate-level course, Pseudology of Area Studies.  In particular, I want to jettison most of the reading quizzes and replace them with short papers.

Here's the thing: how do you assign a paper on material that you expect students to understand poorly?

The aggravation I feel toward this class is largely due to the fact that it attracts a fair number of students who are interested in learning about the geographical region of my research – after all, it's my Area Studies course – but who are largely or totally ignorant of the discipline of pseudology and how we pseudologists go about things.  Sophomores through seniors can generally register for a class in any discipline they choose, no matter what their major, even if there is a prerequisite.  This odd combination of qualifications means that the prerequisite really applies only to frosh, and once they've taken the disciplinary prereq, they can register, too.  (One of them did exactly that for the upcoming semester.)

In practice, this means that many of my students expect to be given a neatly presented plate of facts that they can digest with little effort — hors d'oeuvres, if you will.  They are then unpleasantly surprised to discover that I am not butlering cheese and crackers, but am instead trying to get them to strap on aprons and learn to do some cooking.  (If I may continue with my cuisinary metaphor.  Did I mention that I'm feeling peckish, as I often do before going to bed?) 

The reading quizzes I gave were, if I may confess to my readership, often a scandal of incompetence in which the students frantically tried to remember a few facts, slap those facts down on the page, and hope that I would be good enough to fill in some ideas around those nuggets of factuality.  For my part, I quickly recognized this problem, but I felt helpless to remedy it in any comprehensive sense.  Never mind my neophyte fears of freaking out my students (and myself!) by retooling the syllabus on the fly.  I just couldn't figure out what the point of Pseudology of Area Studies would be if I didn't make the students focus on both parts of the course title. 

So how do I structure some short papers that make the students engage with the abstract ideas as well as some concrete facts when I cannot guarantee that the students will have already learned the basics of what pseudology is and how it operates at the undergrad level?  I don't want to set them up for failure – gee, déjà vu there – but I want them to understand as well that they have to work, not just absorb.  Surely this is a common issue for social scientists teaching in college.  How does one split the difference so that the students get a decently scaled challenge and the prof gets papers worth the trouble of reading?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gun anger

Fuck you, NRA.

Too angry to say anything else right now.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

RBOC: Rants from the Proctor's Chair

  • Stu, when I walk into the classroom to administer the final exam, that is not the time to ask questions about the last test.  You know when it would have been the time?  Last week, when you didn't come to class, or the week before, when you were in class.  Or in my office hours at any point over the last two months.  My sympathy is not aroused by a question that only emphasizes the fact of your chronic absence, either.
  • And another thing, Stu: don't think I don't notice that it is you trying to ask me about the last test just as you're going to take the final.  You, who blew off even the emergency office hours I held yesterday, during exam week, out of sheer pity for my students.  You, who told me that you had something more important to you – although utterly non-essential – to do during those hours, and asked if you could come by after those hours would end, when I distinctly said I would not be available, because apparently you think that you wield the same level of authority in this scheduling situation as you do over your hair stylist.  My patience with your trifling ass is worn down to a nub.  Have fun with that exam, you over-entitled little so-and-so.
  • Seriously, students?  You are choosing to hand in your exam after less than an hour's worth of effort, in a three-hour exam period?  You understand that that is tantamount to throwing away points, right?  And I don't see any academic standouts amongst you.
  • Oh, and you didn't bother even to attempt the extra credit questions?  For realz?  Did you schedule a date midway through your exam period?  'Cause I can't think of any other good reason to hand in that exam without so much as trying to get the extra credit.
  • Did I mention that the extra credit is worth a bump of an entire letter grade?  Every one of you little speed demons could really use that bump.  All right, fine, have it your way.  I suppose your speedy, sloppy test-taking will allow me to grade that much more quickly, as well.
  • Sigh...on the other end of things, it's vaguely uncomfortable to sit in a large classroom with only two remaining students who appear to be writing in microscopic print because they are dead-set on responding to the essay questions with novellas.  Really, I'm glad that they're making the effort, but I wonder how much more they can add, given that they must write on the exam itself, and have no room to expand beyond that.  I may have to pick up a magnifying glass on the way home, so I can read whatever the hell they're micro-printing.
  • I suppose it's commendable of them to take advantage of the entire three-hour exam period to proofread their work top to bottom, but surely they must be approaching a point of diminishing returns.  Jeez.
  • Also, I did not have time for a proper lunch before proctoring this exam.  It would be really nice if I could grab a sandwich or something after this, before I have to run back to my office to meet with more students.
  • On the plus side, I had no time for lunch because I squeezed in a haircut this morning.  Nice to look neatly trimmed and dapper, instead of shaggy and absentminded professor-ish.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Home sick :(

For the first time since I-don't-know-when, I stayed home from school today on account of illness.  It is certainly the first time I have ever done so as a professor.  Maybe it's just my machismo kicking in, but I feel disappointed in myself that I allowed a virus to afflict my sinuses.  I hate getting sick in the middle of things.  It always gives me tremendous anxiety to plan out a semester's syllabus and work in little points here and there where I know I'll have leeway to contract things a bit, if we lose a day or two.  It makes me anxious because I don't want to be the reason for the missed class session.  It feels unprofessional to me.  And yes, I recognize it's insane to think that way about a cold virus.

But anyway, I was already having a little trouble talking yesterday, as my throat closed up and my sinuses went on the fritz.  Apparently, this is one of those slow-acting viruses that just teases you for a few days before really hitting you.  It's the same one that made me bust out the chicken soup mentioned in my last post.  Well, after my colleagues all said to me, "Why don't you just go home?" rather than attend a meeting, I took off. 

On the way home, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up ingredients for some dishes I planned to cook.  As soon as I got to the store and pulled out my list, I nixed the whole thing.  Since my list was on my iPhone, I switched from Notes to Dropbox: I realized it would be easier to shop for groceries if I kept my recipes accessible.  I felt so crappy at this point that I just got the ingredients for another pot of chicken soup. 

When I got home and set about making the soup, I found that my throat tickle had progressed to a full-blown cough.  There was no way I could lecture like this, and I felt so bedraggled yesterday morning that I actually worried about being incapable of driving safely to work.  Head held low, I emailed my students to cancel the class for today.

I hope this day of mild rest and soupy indulgence do something good for me.  I can't really call off any more school days, since this is the last week of classes and I need to administer the evaluations surveys.  It'd look pretty bad if I sidestepped those.

Coughing.  Guess I'd better squeeze another lemon for juice and heat up a bowl of soup.  I have to nuke this fucking bug so I'm functional tomorrow.  Sigh/cough.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Dude.  The last few weeks have been so tiring for me.  Really, the entire month of November kicked my ass.  First I was preparing for the Big Giant Pseudology Conference.  Then I actually attended the BGPC.  Then I endured a week in Hometown.  (Virtually back to back!)  Then I had to get my ass back into gear for the following school week.

Inevitably, all that travel and stress has given me a cold to further enervate me.  Could be worse, though: it's not one of those colds that wallops you, but only saps some of your energy and desire to talk.  As you all know, it's hard not to talk when you're the professor.  Luckily, I have constant access to orange juice and the most potent panacæa* yet discovered: my grandmother's chicken soup recipe.  In an effort to ratchet up the sinus-clearing and throat-healing powers of this formidable soup, I added two tablespoons of cayenne pepper.  Perhaps the soup could have done just fine with only one tablespoon, but it sure cleared my sinuses. 

I'm down to a single remaining week of class, and then there'll be exam week and grading.  I feel like I may have to be carried to work on a stretcher for sheer exhaustion.  You know how sometimes you feel too weak to lift your limbs to do your class prep, even when you're perfectly healthy?  I'm reaching that point now, and my nose and throat are still misbehaving.

But on the plus side of things, part of my exhaustion comes from
  • having enjoyed my best BGPC ever, replete with networking, good meals, and a renewed sense that my colleagues take me seriously as a scholar;
  • having done some things that needed to be done in Hometown, unpleasant as they may have been;
  • somehow keeping my classes running, although I admit this part has suffered as a result of the first two accomplishments.
I am amused to observe that, as personal as all this stuff is, it's structural at a larger level: every one of my colleagues at CBU agrees with me that our asses are dragging as we approach the end of semester.  We all have different stories, but they all have the same conclusion.  Perhaps I really have joined the club in some way.

*I love typing those fiddly letters and diacritics.  Don't you?