If You Ask Me…

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When state performance measures came out this year and the Credit English Success (p.7) rate was below the average band, my first instinct was to become defensive. “It’s not my fault!” I wanted to scream and quickly blame someone else. Another instinct was to point the finger at society’s focus on data. However, after the initial flare up of self-protection, I calmed down and began to reflect more completely on the entirity of the report, which helped to put things into perspective. I want to be prepared to offer suggestions for improvement should anyone ever show any interest in what a retiring English educator with 33 years of experience thinks.

Although our college is considered below average in Credit English Success, we are above average in College Transfer Success (p. 17.) This is encouraging to me because it says that despite extraordinary circumstances such as the pandemic with its accompanying economic and cultural effects, our students who transferred to four-year institutions were well-prepared to continue their education.

Another encouraging factor is that while we are below the average band, only by .03 index points, I know we, and I don’t mean just the English department, I mean the entire college, WE can do so much more to help our students perform better in their English classes. One thing is already in the works, and that is a push to encourage, or even to require, students to take their English classes early in their programs. However, there is more that we as a college can do to help improve College English Success. Here are a few ideas:

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  • Normalize high standards for reading and writing. If students heard from every instructor across divisions how important reading and writing well is to success in school and the workplace, and if instructors incorporated more reading and writing assignments in all classes, our scores would go up.
  • Improve the writing assessment skills of instructors. Although most instructors have advanced degrees in their subject area and are experts in writing within their discipline, few have had any formal education on how best to assess reading and writing skills. Understanding ways to incorporate reading and writing assessments within instructors’ particular divisions based on the writing assessment techniques already used in the college’s English department would be a way to permeate all programs with a consistent standard without violating any instructor’s academic freedom. Topics of professional development could include

  • incorporating vocabulary and other reading lessons into any course
  • adding consistent writing criteria into advanced grading methods such as rubrics, checklists, and marking guides.
  • composing engaging writing assignments with clear instructions.
  • teaching best practices of composition teachers and explore how to translate these techniques into the non-English classroom
  • how to save time when grading written assignments while maintaining high standards of written communication
  • Promote the importance of communication skills throughout the College, maybe even plan special events that highlight the importance of reading and writing in all disciplines. Many organizations are eager to partner with community colleges, groups such as PEN America and the National Writing Project that declares, “Writing is essential to learning, critical thinking, and active citizenship” (NWP).
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  • Across the campus, teach not only students but also faculty and staff the importance of strong reading and writing skills for school and for the workplace. Here are just a few facts.
    • Reading well improves the ability to follow instructions, and reading complex texts, like literature, peer-reviewed scholarly articles, and professional journals, increases critical thinking, a skill highly prized by today’s employers according to World Economic Forum.
    • An August 2022 article from Business News Daily, reports on the professional benefits of reading books, fiction as well as non-fiction, including fostering empathy and creativity as well as developing problem-solving and cognitive skills. According to the article, reading can even lessen stress and build perseverance, skills students definitely need now and in the future. Imagine if all instructors were curating interesting and engaging readings for their students. They would be expanding their knowledge of their own disciplines while encouraging their own students to develop their reading skills.
    • The importance of strong communication skills in the workplace continues to be of high importance in 2022 as reported by major educational institutions like Harvard and MIT as well as career-seeking sites, such as Indeed, Monster, Zip Jobs, and Linked In.
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  • Another thing we can do to work on the problem is to develop a college-wide system for remediating students who need extra help with their writing. For example, when I was a graduate student at Western Carolina University low these many years ago, I worked as a graduate assistant in the Writing Center. I would often tutor students who had received a “CC” on their essays in a course other than English. I can’t remember what CC stands for after all of these years, but I do remember that professors gave CC’s to essays that did not meet basic college-level English standards. Students who received two CC’s would be enrolled at no expense in a remedial English program. The word was that no student wanted to endure that class, so they would come to the Writing Center for help. I remember receiving a thank you note from one grateful student whose scores on all of his essays improved upon just a few visits to the Writing Center. Our college might do something like this–develop a system to identify students in non-English classes who have writing issues and allow them to complete revisions for a higher grade only if they visit the Student Success Center to work on that revision. We already have a referral system in place, but if all instructors could be more proactive in addressing the need to improve writing skills campus-wide, then our success rates would increase.

Just a few ideas of what the college as a whole could do to improve our English scores. Next time on Hey, Mrs. Winkler I’ll offer some suggestions on ways the administration can help English faculty as they struggle to help improve retention and success for our students.

Even if they don’t ask me.

Teach. Write. Fall~Winter 2022 Edition Now Available in Print

Teach. Write. is an online publication, but I like to make print copies available. I don’t know. I just love seeing my work on a real printed page, and I think many of my contributors feel the same way. It wasn’t easy getting the print version ready, though. Work has been crazy busy with finishing up one eight-week composition class and starting two more next week, plus a four-week student success course (crazy, man). Despite my schedule, however, I wanted to get this publication out before tomorrow because something special is going to happen.

One of my contributors, Jeff Burd, and two of his writer friends whose work also appears, have arranged a special virtual reading tomorrow. Nine contributors will be reading their work. Jeff will introduce each one, and I will follow each reading with a word or two about why I chose that work for the journal.

What a great idea!! And to top it off, Jeff and his friends have arranged everything because they are teachers, too, and know I wouldn’t have had time to make it happen. All I have to do is show up and be proud!!!

Since I started publishing Teach. Write. in 2017, I have, of course, been impressed with the talent that has come my way, but even more than that, I have been thankful for the kindness of my contributors. Something special about Teacher-Writers.

That’s for sure!

Another Edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal Is Now Available

The Fall~Winter 2022 edition of Teach. Write. is here! I love editing this journal, and it always amazes me how things come together. In this edition, we have a special feature asking for readers’ feedback. Hope you will read it and let the author know what you think.

Here is the link to the new edition’s page: Fall~Winter 2022 Teach. Write.

I will be accepting submissions for the Spring~Summer 2023 edition until March 1 with an expected publication date of April 1, 2023. Here is a line to the submission guidelines. I would love to read your work!!

Hendersonville Theatre

I am excited that next weekend, on Saturday, October 8, my one-act parody of Poe’s “The House of Usher” called “Roddy’s House Comes Down” is going to be workshopped at Hendersonville Theatre in Hendersonville, North Carolina. A few months ago, one of my students had a play that she wrote for my creative writing class read during this reader’s theater program, and she inspired me to give it a try!

If that’s not good enough, my former student and now friend and collaborator, Curtis McCarley composed music for the song included in the play called “Usher’s Lament.” It was like old times as Curtis and I worked on the song, just like we did for our musical A Carolina Story and other projects we’ve done through the years.

Click here for more information about Hendersonville Theatre, and maybe I’ll see you there!!

Higher Education?

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I know college costs too much–not my fault. Anybody who sees my paycheck can tell you that. I know community college is often seen as pseudo-higher education–I have no control over people’s perceptions. I only know that I will continue to hold my students to a high, but reachable, standard. I know some instructors do not expect college-level work from their students–I’m not one of them. I know some advisors and administrators sincerely feel sorry for those with difficult life situations that often interfere with student success. I understand. I empathize with them as well. However, I can’t allow that to affect my judgement. I cannot, repeat cannot, let any of these considerations interfere with my assessment of students’ performance in my class.

To do so would be unethical.

Consider this: Let’s say I’m teaching a fully online foundational English composition course to a first-semester freshman. The student sends an e-mail the night the first major essay is due and says that they will not be submitting the assignment on time because they were working a double shift and were too worn out and sleepy to turn in their best work, so they are requesting, very politely, an extension.

Some people would say, “Oh, come on, give the kid a break!”

I say the kindest thing to do is, as gently as possible, deny the extension. Why? Because….

  • I accept late work that carries a significant grade penalty, allowing the student to begin to learn important soft skills while still salvaging their grade.
  • the student may begin to understand that in the “real” world, people are expected to meet deadlines
  • the penalty stings enough to begin teaching the student a valuable lesson about time management
  • the student may learn that making excuses and blaming circumstances are only short-term solutions
  • the student has a better chance of developing a growth mindset, learning from their mistakes and becoming not only a better student but also a better person.

It is true that denying any student anything nowadays carries with it certain risks. There is always the chance that the student, or the student’s parent, will complain, not to me, an instructor with no tenure and little power, but to one of my many supervisors, saying that I am being unreasonable and that I should not only accept late work for assignments that students have known about for weeks or even months but that I should also award points for punctuality to an essay that was not turned in on time.

But I am willing to assume that risk for the student’s sake. I learned long ago that enabling students only helps make my life and the lives of my bosses easier. It does nothing to truly help the student or to foster the higher education that my college claims to provide.

CAMPUS IS BACK!!!!

Being back on campus inspired me to go back to CAMPUS, my podel (podcasted novel). Episode 14: Ms. McBride is now available on most podcasting platforms. Just click here.

It’s been a long time–Episode 13 came out in March, so I am going to do my best to post more frequent episodes. I know the production level is kind of low right now. I’m just doing the best I can until I can learn more about podcasting and have more time. That opportunity begins August 2, 2023 when I begin my retirement. Right now my podel is a happy little hobby that I use to have a voice about what’s happening in my world and also just to have some fun. I neeeeeeeddddddddd fun.

In Episode 14, I give my listeners some backstory about one of my favorite characters, Ms. McBride–she a math fairy godteacher. Sounds pretty weird if you haven’t heard any of my podel.

Okay, it sounds weird even if you have listened to some of my podel. But, it’s fun, and I talk about Kierkegaard and Hegel and Kant a little bit, too. Oh, that’s even weirder.

But it’s fun.

There are still a few days left to submit to the Fall/Winter 2022 Edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. The final day to submit is September 1. The publication date is October 1. Click here to see the submission guidelines. I would love to see your work.

Student Teacher–Teacher Student

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If I can put aside my oh-so-fragile ego, I can learn a great deal from my students. I am trying to listen more to what they say. One way I am learning from my students is by requiring my first semester freshman English composition students to write a short researched persuasive essay on a topic that is relevant to our college specifically or to one of the communities it serves.

Students can choose from a list of research questions I brainstormed, or they can submit their own questions for approval. Most of the time, the students pick one of my groups of questions. One set that became much more popular during the pandemic has been about online learning:

  • What is our college doing to help retain online students? Is it enough? Why? or Why not? What are some things that other schools are doing that our college might do to help retain online students? Is our college doing any of these things? 
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This short summer semester, without any prompting from me, two of my best students chose the same group of questions. After research, including separate personal interviews with the college’s Director of Teaching and Learning, my students argued two different, but similar, theses. Happily, both recognized the students’ role in their own success and offered suggestions for what students could do to help themselves complete online courses with the desired results.

However, one student emphasized the faculty’s role in improving online retention, and the other argued that the administration could take steps to help more students achieve success. I found both viewpoints interesting and insightful.

So, what did I learn?

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The two big takeaways–Faculty should interact more with students, and administrators need to lighten instructors loads so that students can do so. Wow! I mean, my students didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know already. I’ve been saying it for years; however, what is new is hearing about the importance of interaction and building a personal relationship from online students themselves, one who has had six semesters of online classes at my institution.

Both students indicated how helpful it is when instructors quickly respond to inquires and return graded material as soon as possible. This is the first time, however, that I have had a student discuss the administration’s responsibility to be sure that faculty do not have an overload.

Their arguments are well-taken.

A case in point was my schedule this summer. I had three classes and a shortened semester of ten weeks instead of sixteen. Since I have been teaching sixteen-week English composition in eight weeks the past couple of years, ten weeks seemed like a summer vacation. With the lighter load, I was not only able to communicate more often and with more detail but also had time to develop my courses and further refine them for our mutual benefit. In addition, I was able to hold more live virtual sessions and record them for the sake of students who could not attend the sessions. Students mentioned how helpful these sessions were.

Both students mentioned the need for proper advisement when students are registering for online classes. Sometimes, they said, students are ill-prepared for the rigor of online classes and may not possess the time-management skills to be successful. I have found that some of my eight-week online students are not even aware that they are taking an accelerated English course and quickly drop out.

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One student mentioned in their essay the problem of recruitment taking precedence over retention. This point resonated with me. For example, on more than a few occassions, I have had developmental and other ill-prepared or otherwise weak students placed in my eight-week courses, or even worse, with advising restrictions removed since the pandemic, students are signing themselves up for classes, which can easily lead to misplacement. Most of these students withdraw; the expectations and pace are simply too much.

The hope is that administration will return to advising restrictions, but the lure of classes filled beyond capacity, and the funds that generates, so far seems to be too strong. As long as enrollment numbers are considered above all other considerations, including limiting the number of students in online classes, hiring more instructors, and better preparing them, I, and two of my most talented students, recognize that we will most likely continue to have low retention and success rates in online classes despite the efforts of even the most dedicated and talented faculty.

A Special Day

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One of the great joys for any teacher is celebrating the successes of her students. On Saturday, July 9, at Hendersonville Theatre in Hendersonville, NC, I was so happy to attend a reading of my former student’s short play that she wrote while in my creative writing class last spring. It was her last semester, and although she is not planning to study English as she continues her academic career, she told her advisor, my colleague and friend, that she always wanted to be a writer, so my colleague suggested Creative Writing I, a course that I was teaching for the first time as an eight-week course–completely online.

It wasn’t an easy course to teach or to take–fitting in sixteen weeks of material in half the time was going to be a challenge, but my student consistently turned in quality, polished work in all of the genres we studied. About the time we got to the drama unit, I found out that the local community theater was conducting a play reading series to help local playwrights workshop their plays. Then, my student submitted the ten-minute play, “Book Club,” to fulfill the playwriting assignment.

My student and I after the reading of her play “Book Club” at Hendersonville Theatre

The play was good, very good–it had solid structure, strong characters with distinct voices, humor, and most importantly, something to say about the foibles of our society. Almost on a whim, I suggested that Amber submit the play for the reading series and gave her the information, not really thinking that she would have the time with her busy schedule to submit the play, but a few weeks later, she e-mailed me that her play had been accepted.

So, there I was on that Saturday, in the audience, listening to six fine local actors read my student’s little play and then hearing the audience members–actors, directors, family members, and patrons of the theater offer words of encouragement to the young writer and give suggestions for taking the play further, maybe expanding it. Afterwards, I was able to meet her parents and grandmother who were there in support of her achievement

To make the day even better, my good friend and fellow playwright Pat’s play, “Amanda” was also read. It, too, was a fine play and also featured great actors–A short play about a woman’s whose house cat suddenly and inexplicably miraculously changes form to the great delight and laughter of the audience. Like all good comedies, however, it had its poignant and touching moments as well.

The Brandy Bar in Hendersonville, NC

On Wednesday of the next week, Pat and I talked about writing ten-minute plays at the fantastic little watering hole called the Brandy Bar in Hendersonville on historic 7th Avenue for the “In the Company of Writers” series sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network–Henderson County. After sipping on brandy cocktails and listening to some cool, jazzy blues, we read our own little play about writing plays before talking about plays, among other literary things, especially the non-pecuniary value of our art.

It was a great evening in the mid-week after classes to follow a wonderful afternoon on the weekend, spending quality time with writers and immersing myself in one of my great loves–the theater.

Teach. Write. –It’s a good life!

Mrs. Winkler Keeps Reading, and Thinking

I haven’t been writing like I should this summer since I’ve been working. It’s hard to read and analyze student writing all day and then come home and write. However, I do still find the time to read and have enjoyed an eclectic bunch of books.

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I read Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren back in early spring–a high-stress time for me like so many educators, so this was a good find, loaned to me by the faculty advisor of our college’s Christian student group. It proved to be a good choice.

Being reminded of the value of appreciating the everyday events in my life and how these moments can become times of meditation and preparation for an increasingly tense working environment was the literary comfort food I needed, like the PB&J sandwich on the cover.

Warren takes us through a typical day with eleven chapters like “Waking,” “Losing Keys,” “Sitting in Traffic,” and “Sleeping.” Each one includes ways to not only appreciate the ordinary but also to find the spiritual force within it.

I especially liked Chapter 7: Checking Email because it discusses the value in our everyday work lives. One of the frustrations after almost 30 years of teaching is the sameness of my work. I still find joy in teaching, but I must admit to growing weary of answering so many of the same questions, marking the same errors over and over again.

Gratefully, my students do improve, but too soon they move on, and a whole new batch come in who need the same instruction. I’m not blaming them or anybody–nature of the beast. I’m just getting kinda sick of it, you know? I know, I know, I need to retire, and I’m going to–soon, but I don’t want to simply survive this upcoming year; I want to be a good, compassionate, not-burned-out composition teacher.

Having read this book will help me.

I also liked the chapter called Making the Bed. I hate to admit it, but for a long time, even though my mama taught me better, I wasn’t making up the bed. Then, I read this book about forming good habits (I blogged about it), and I started making my bed each morning. In the years since then, I’ve rarely missed a day, and it has indeed helped me to appreciate the value of routine–and the joy of it, even. Making the bed, preparing my desk for work, cooking, so many things I am finding pleasure in again.

Being 62 may have something to do with it.

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For example, the opening chapter of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca begins with the unnamed protagonist describing her quiet life now that all the drama is over, and she is far away from Manderly, the sprawling estate that she and her husband Max had loved so dearly:

“In reality I lay many hundred miles away in an alien land, and would wake, before many seconds had passed, in the bare little hotel bedroom, comforting in its very lack of atmosphere. I would sigh a moment, stretch myself and turn, and opening my eyes, be bewildered at that glittering sun, that hard, clean sky, so different from the soft moonlight of my dream. The day would lie before us both, long no doubt, and uneventful, but fraught with a certain stillness, a dear tranquillity we had not known before.”

I remember thinking when I was a girl and reading Rebecca for the first time how utterly boring it must have been and had no idea how an uneventful day “fraught with a certain stillness” could possibly be either dear or tranquil.

Now, I understand, and reading Warren’s book just solidified that understanding. She writes: “Without realizing it, I had slowly built a habit: a steady resistance to and dread of boredom.”

That’s it. That’s what I had been doing.

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Now, I can’t say that I welcome boredom, but I am learning how to make peace with it and use it more as “me” time. Sometimes, I, a person who in the past always had to be doing something and “feeling productive,” just sit on the front deck with a cold beverage and (gasp) think!

It’s becoming my liturgy, but you know, it’s not really ordinary at all.

Finding a Way

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I’m behind keeping up with my summer loves, especially reading and writing, because I’m working this summer. It’s not too bad a gig–Monday through Thursday schedule, three classes instead of five or six, ten weeks instead of sixteen with a two-week vacation at the end. I can handle it this summer and the next because I have something to look forward to–permanent summer break.

Yes, retirement begins on August 1, 2023. I’m a little excited. Can you tell?

In the meantime, I make the best of things in my temporary office in the library at our college as we await the final touches being put on the new multi-million dollar building that replaces two of the oldest buildings on campus. One of those buildings was my work home for 26 years, so as the building is being torn down, I admit I have become nostalgic. Who wouldn’t?

photo by Katie Winkler

However, I am not too sorry to see it go. It served us all well over the years, but it was built during a different time and doesn’t meet the needs of a 21st-century student body or its faculty. My students being able to access the WI-FI from my office will be a nice change. I hear the adjustable stand-up desks are really rad as well. Do people still say “rad”?

So, I watch the goings-on across the lake, answer numerous messages and emails, occasionally chat with colleagues, teach one small seated class, and grade, grade, grade the assignments and essays of my mere 43 composition and developmental students. During regular semesters, English faculty usually teach six classes and have 100 or more students. To earn an overload, an instructor must have over 110 students or more than six courses, so this “leisurely” pace helps a little.

Despite the tedious nature of grading essays, I know from long experience that working directly with student writing through grading and conferencing and therefore establishing a relationship with students as individuals is the most important work I do as a composition teacher. I do not think there is any substitute for it.

Hence the dilemma.

The demand for English instructors to deliver online instruction is higher than ever, but course loads that already did not consider how much time an English professor needs to deliver meaningful writing instruction online have not been altered to reflect the nature of effective andragogy in the English classroom and how it has been affected by the increasing number of online students.

In addition, the number of students desiring accelerated online English instruction has increased. If you take the already heavy grading load of a 16-week semester and cut it in half, something’s got to give. Often times that is the student, who may or may not have been advised that the course must cover 16 weeks of material in 8 weeks’ time.

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Currently, I am the only instructor at my institution who is crazy enough to attempt teaching eight-week online freshman composition classes. I must say, now that I have taught them for several semesters, the accelerated classes work extremely well for a certain type of student, especially those who are working towards degrees to gain a promotion at work. Highly motivated students like those in our pre-nursing, emergency medical services, and law-enforcement programs also tend to do well.

Students who are not good candidates for online learning, are not prepared for the workload, are not willing to make changes to their schedules to make room for the extra time they will need to spend, or those who do not manage their time well, along with those who are weak students or writers in general, simply should not take the accelerated course.

But they do.

So what is an English teacher who cares about learning for ALL students, whether they should be there or not, supposed to do? Furthermore, what does an instructor do if she wants to infuse her own personality into her course and resists the impersonal “canned” classes that so often do not fit her institution’s student body and do not help build the vital personal relationships that are required for good teaching of any kind?

Find a way.

With all that extra time (guffaw) I have this summer, I am continuing to make changes in hopes that the Mad English Person who, after my retirement, steps into the perilous land of acceleration will have an easier time of it. Here are a few things I have done and am doing to help that poor soul:

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  • Adding lessons–In my learning management system (LMS), I can create multi-media lessons that help guide the students through the essential material. My own simple questions can be embedded throughout each lesson that is automatically graded by the computer, allowing an easy low-stakes grade for the student and zero work for me. Of course, I must take considerable time to build the lessons, but remember, I have all that extra time this summer.
  • Early in the course, assigning paragraphs instead of full-length essays–Having students write paragraphs of seven to ten sentences instead of full essays has been a game-changer. I can still teach multiple rhetorical modes as required by the state, including illustration, process analysis, classification, and definition, but now I have more time to focus on the basic elements of any good writing–thesis, support, conclusion, organization, transitions, sentence structure, diction, grammar, and mechanics. In addition, I can grade closely without overwhelming the students. My constructive criticism seems easier for them to digest. Best of all–it’s doable for even the weakest of my students.
  • Fewer and shorter essays–Beyond a doubt, less is more. In an accelerated class, I must limit what students write for both our sakes, but I have found that the writing is stronger because I have more preliminary work leading up to the final draft that is low stakes for them and little work for me. Win. Win.
  • Require rough drafts but give little direct feedback. If one of the learning objectives is for students to revise and edit more effectively, why in the world am I going to revise and edit for them? How does that help anybody learn? I am handicapping students if I give too much feedback on a rough draft. I require them because they help students with time management, and I have an earlier draft to judge students’ revising and editing skills. Because I give mainly completion grades for drafts (and make sure students are aware of this), there is little work for me.
  • Line editing less–In the “old” days, I felt like I owed it to students to mark every single error I could find. No more. I save time, energy, and my sanity, by line editing the first paragraph of an essay, and then marking and making comments occasionally after that. I used to spend 45 minutes to an hour grading one researched essay, but now I can effectively grade one in half that time.
  • Make use of the LMS advanced grading system–I am not a fan of Turnitin (subject for another day), and I’m too close to retirement to want to pursue a change in our relationship, but I do make use of the LMS’s built-in advanced grading system. I can easily build new rubrics and checklists. I also have access to a “quicklist” when I am marking an essay. I choose from a long, long drop-down menu of common comments. Over the years, I have added links to webpages that give students more information or offer exercises to help them with various writing issues. It has really helped me save time.
  • Adding more required online sessions and conferences–I am able to record the sessions, so even though few students can attend live, one or two usually do, and the other students are required to view the sessions. Logs on the computer allow me to verify if the student downloaded and viewed the recording. The conferences are even better because I can speak in person to each student, which helps to form those all-important relationships between us through discussing the student’s writing and listening to their concerns.
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I may be old and worn out, and some people can’t seem to wait to put me out to pasture, but I’ve been at this work a long time, and I am not afraid to say it–I’m damn good at it. I know what works, and letting some AI, no matter how sophisticated, do the instruction, may lead to better data in the short term, but it won’t lead to better writing–only holding students to a standard, then compassionately working directly with them and their writing can achieve that.

Way Too Long

The last time I wrote a blog post was back on April 9, so it is high time I write another. I suppose.

I’m not sure what writing this blog means to me anymore. No one is forcing me to do it. I rather think there may be some who would be perfectly happy if I never wrote another word. Ah, who am I kidding? Mrs. Winkler, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. I mean, what are you doing? You muse and mutter about this life work you do that may be important to you and possibly to some of your students but the essence of which seems to be of little importance to the “people who count,” those who seem to measure success through the uptick of certain numbers and the downward trend of others.

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But enough of this muttering, I say to myself. Buck up, Buttercup! You aren’t long for the world of decreasing academic freedom and shrinking shared governance. You, my dear Mrs. Winkler, are bound for retirement!! Ah, yes, many blissful days with absolutely no grading of freshmen essays laden with 1st and 2nd person pronouns, unnecessary repetition, and comma splices. You will only write and read what you wish as you sit on the front deck with your feet propped up, a cup of steaming coffee or glass of iced tea in your hand. Your daughter will give you more and more gift books like The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to fill the lazy days. And you will like it very much.

How’s that for a segue into my next book review?

Yes, for Christmas, my daughter gave me this unusual, incredible book called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. She had a hard time finding a copy when she went Christmas shopping because she considers the book more like poetry or creative non-fiction than anything else. She found it finally in the reference section of the bookstore. Someone with a literal mind shelved it there, I suppose.

The book is as hard to describe as it was for her to find. It is indeed a dictionary because it has a series of words along with their parts of speech, definitions, and etymologies, but that is about all this book has in common with a dictionary. The invented or reinterpreted words are not in alphabetical order, but they are separated into categories that are equally as obscure as the words, such as “Between Living and Dreaming” (1) and “Montage of Attractions” (81)

Each entry defines a word that describes an emotion, feeling, or action that eludes denotation, but somehow, the author, through his poetic prose, puts words to what seems undefinable. Following each definition is the word’s etymology, so clever and accurate that it leaves readers nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, that’s right. I know that feeling.”

Some of the definitions are short but others, my favorites, are essay length, often accompanied by a photograph or some other illustration. One of my favorite examples is the definition of Lumus, which comes from the Latin lumen, meaning light or brightness and humus–dark, rich soil. The brief definition of the word is “the poignant humanness beneath the spectacle of society” (127).

Pretty obscure, right? Until Koenig writes about what it means–to get away from society’s expectations and rediscover our humanity only to be swept back up into the rat race again. Then, his meaning becomes clear: “We know it’s all so silly and meaningless, and yet we’re still here, holding our breath together, waiting to see what happens next. And tomorrow, we’ll put ourselves out there and do it all again. The show must go on” (129)

Yeah, I say. That’s right. I know that feeling.

I know it right now. And am inspired to write my own word to name this current malaise.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The word is Meloncholied, which comes from the German Melancholie (melancholy)+Lied (song)

And so goes the old teacher’s song:

I’m not sure I even know what it is I do anymore. It seems like more and more, pardon the sports metaphor, I’m playing some evasive game with definite, elusive rules that are only made clear once they are broken and penalties are imposed. How do I score if I don’t know where the goal line, post, net, or basket is?

And the chorus:

You are simply more trouble than you are worth, Mrs. Winkler. We won’t even bother trying to rein you in since your pasture has been seeded and will soon sprout its winter grass. But these young content experts, whose subject knowledge exceeds that of anyone else at our college, whose enthusiasm for teaching has not been beaten down by political pandering and bureaucratic busyness, let’s pour all our condescension and patronizing onto them while we passively aggressively work on the lowering of the industry standards we claim to uphold.

And yet!

Oh, the blessed “and yet” — the turn of my sonnet–the sestet to the glum octave.

And yet, there is hope. Our educational felix culpa. It is coming. It is. I don’t know if I will live to see it, but the fire is coming that will burn down all of these false constructs that have plagued the educational institutions of our country for so long. After the destruction, we can build anew and again lay a foundation of learning for learning’s sake.

That is my hope anyway.

Therefore, despite feeling lost at times in this specious world, where upholding academic standards for the eventual betterment of students’ lives and society at large is no longer the apparent goal of our colleges and universities, I am nevertheless optimistic about the future of higher education in America. A dread, mixed with excitement is growing in me as I sense that we are on the cusp of major change–painful, soul-wrenching, horrible, miraculous, life-giving change.

For that, I wait.

And tomorrow I teach.

Meloncholied.

Work Cited:

Koenig, John. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Simon & Schuster, 2021.