Finding a Way

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

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:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  • 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.
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Vincenzo Malagoli on Pexels.com

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.

Tale End of the Baby Boomers

I stated in my last blog that I would review the book my daughter gave me for Christmas, but I’m going to put that off. Recent events at work have caused me to revisit some “teachable moments” in my past that have shaped me as an educator and a human. But come back for the review. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a little book packed full of wistful wisdom.

My parents on their honeymoon in New Orleans–December 1955

And now, here’s a little bit more about Mrs. Winkler back when she was Ms. Whitlock.

I was born in 1960, towards the end of the Baby Boomer generation. Kinda awkward I’m finding, especially as a woman. Unlike some women born in the ’40s and ’50s, I inherited some of the privileges that had been denied them but still had, and have, a long way to go, baby.

At least I could open a bank account.

Yes, that’s right.

Writing for the financial website Spiral, LeBach Pham writes that although women had been financiers in America throughout its history, it was not until the ’60s that banks could no longer legally keep a woman from opening an account. (Pham). I was 14 when women obtained the right to open a credit card account or to take out a mortgage on their own thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, although I wasn’t ready to have a credit card until I was well into my 20’s.

I suppose in my early years, I took for granted some of the privileges that many women, especially college-educated women, had fought so hard for. Part of the reason, I suppose, is because my wonderful parents were both fierce supporters of education. I remember one of my favorite family pictures before my younger brother was born is my father, smiling, seated in the middle of the picture with me, the youngest at the time, about two or three I think, on his knee, then, my gap-toothed brother and my sister, the oldest, standing on either side of him. Behind my father, arms reaching out and resting on her children’s shoulders as if to cover her whole family, is my mother, in her full regalia, having just graduated with her BA in English from Auburn University.

After graduating from Lanett High School in Lanett, AL, my mother, who wanted to see a bit more of the world than the little cotton mill town where she was widely known as the principal’s daughter, headed out to Shawnee, OK, to attend Oklahoma Baptist University. For her day, it was a bold move, I think, to attend a university over 800 miles west of her protective home.

Photo by cmonphotography on Pexels.com

My mother tells the story of how she arrived by train that first year and walked with her bag toward the campus to see it covered in black. As she got closer she realized what she was seeing a giant swarm of locusts. Big black and gold locusts. She said she couldn’t move without stepping on one. I couldn’t imagine anyone staying after that introduction, but mom did and went back the next year, even after falling in love with my dad, whom she had known all through school but never dated until that summer after her first year in college.

She had promised my grandparents she would go back one more year and she did. But it wasn’t until after marriage and the birth of her first three children that my mother finished her degree at Auburn University, with my dad’s full support and encouragement

I remember going far away from home, too, when I was right out of undergraduate school. I went to Oral Roberts University during the 900-foot Jesus years. You had to be there. Nevertheless, I feel I got a good education at ORU. Yes, I had to take a course called Holy Spirit in the Now, but I also took Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament. Those two courses have served me well as a student and teacher of literature, especially at a community college in the buckle of the Bible belt.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My first teaching assignment was at a small church-affiliated school in Aliquippa, PA, outside of Pittsburg. Until I was flown up to the school for an interview, I had never been anywhere near Pittsburg, had no relatives there, and knew no one, but, just like my mother, I saw it all as a grand adventure. The school was small, and I taught three levels of English and two levels of German.

Turned out it was rather out of the mainstream theologically, but I did not become aware of this until after I took the job, even though I asked specifically about the church’s and school’s doctrine during the interviews. For example, although I had hauled all my German Christmas materials with me and moved them into my little attic apartment, I wasn’t able to use them because the church was vehemently anti-Catholic and did not believe in practicing any of the “pagan” holidays, so I just kept my copies of “Stille Nacht” in my files at home.

At the very first faculty meeting I attended, soon after I was introduced, our principal announced that he wanted all of the teachers to incorporate into our curriculum the support of prayer in public schools. He looked at me and the one other English teacher and said, “You will have your students write letters to their congressmen in support of prayer in schools. I will give you a sample letter I want them to follow”

Without hesitation, I said, “No, I won’t be able to do that.” He looked shocked. I looked around the room and the other teachers, especially the women, seemed shocked as well. I felt that I needed to explain. “I will discuss writing persuasive letters to our congressmen and create an assignment, but I want my students to write about the issues that are important to them and formulate their own letters.”

Everyone seemed still surprised.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“Of course, if they want to write and send letters to their congressmen about prayer in schools, then I will assist them in editing the letters, but I can’t require them to write those letters.”

Silence.

A silence that spelled trouble for me from then on.

And yet, several of my fellow teachers, all women, came up to me after that faculty meeting and thanked me. They called me brave. It was my turn to be surprised. I didn’t feel particularly brave, just strong in my convictions that teaching writing didn’t have anything to do with religion or politics, no matter where I was teaching.

I remember speaking up again a few months later when I found out that the single male music teacher was making more money than I was. He had let it slip when he was hitting on me. I was appalled (at both) He had less education, fewer responsibilities–I had five preps in two disciplines, morning duty, lunchroom and afternoon duty as well as serving as assistant soccer coach and theater director. He had his classes, four I think, including band and choir practice.

I marched down to the principal’s office and just asked him–Why is so-and-so making more money than me? The answer–“Some day he will have a family to provide for.”

My turn to be shocked.

I may have been able to open a bank account when I taught in PA at that small private school, but I certainly didn’t make much money to put into one.

I did go back another year, believe it or not, partly because I had been promised a raise (although it never materialized), and partly because I had a long talk with my very wise daddy who had seen growth in me that first year and just felt I should go back. He wasn’t sure why. Always trust the instincts of someone who loves you, I thought then and still do. But the biggest reason I went back was pure orneriness, I reckon. Yeah, I thought, you fellers are going to have to deal with an uppity southern woman one more year.

At the end of that year, after I faced the fact that I couldn’t afford to live on the salary I was making, I began to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I started dating, Mr. Winkler–the best man that I know and as wise as my sweet daddy.

I came back South to get my second degree at Auburn University. Mr. Winkler, followed me down South a year later, and after I finished my degree and started working for Floyd County Schools in Rome, GA, I became Mrs. Winkler and have never regretted it one bit almost thirty-three years later.

However, while I was still Ms. Whitlock, teaching English and German at two high schools in the county, I still felt that “in-between” feeling, although I did enjoy some privileges denied me at the private school –being paid on a state teaching salary schedule at least. This meant I was supposed to be paid as much as a man, but I noticed that most of the male teachers also had paid coaching positions at the school, while I was assigned assistant soccer coach as one of my regular duties–no extra paycheck came with that.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But, I was making a decent salary at least, enough to even open a credit card account and take out my first loan to buy a new car. This time the inequities were more subtle, but very much there. For example, at one of the high schools where I taught, I had the star football player in my class–he was the kicker for the team. Now, I am no football expert, but my father had played football for Auburn and been a football coach so I knew enough to know, after watching a couple of games, that this kid was, well, not very good.

However, he and the administration felt differently about his abilities I guess.

One day in class, the students were working on an assignment, and I looked up to see that our star football player was putting a small paper cup under his desk. I walked toward him, and the cup fell over, spilling out a disgusting black liquid. Tobacco usage of any kind, including chew, even in that rural part of a Georgia county, was strictly forbidden; the faculty had been strongly reminded of that in a recent memo from the principal. So, I called the kid on it. He claimed it wasn’t his cup. “I saw you put the cup under your desk,” I said and wrote him up for detention.

Later that day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal had barely spoken to me before that day. “You’re new here,” he said, “so you may not know that so-and-so is our starting kicker and an important member of the team.”

“Oh, I’m aware that he’s on the team, but I saw him put a cup full of tobacco spit under the desk. It fell over, and he refused to clean it up, so I wrote him up for a detention.”

“Did you actually see so-and-so spit in the cup?”

“No, I suppose I didn’t.”

“He says he didn’t spit in that cup. That he was covering for his buddy.” I tried to continue my argument but was cut short. The principal said, “I’m going to rescind this detention because you didn’t actually see so-and-so spit in the cup, and if he gets one more detention, he will have to sit out a game, and he’s too important to the team.”

I knew it would be better for me to say nothing, and I knew it probably would do no good at all to say anything, but just like in PA, I couldn’t help it, I spoke out. “Okay, I suppose you are going to do this no matter what I think, but I will tell you that word is going to get around quickly that I have no authority in my own classroom, and I am going to have more and more trouble.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That my prediction came true has never given me any comfort.

And yet, over thirty years later, I am still speaking out about the dangers of administrators ignoring the ramifications of taking authority away from the teacher in the classroom. I’m still predicting how that loss of authority is chipping away at the academic integrity of our schools, colleges, and universities.

But who am I? A little, mouthy Southern woman–just another boomer on the verge of retirement.

This Colossal Wreck

Busy trying to teach my heart out (which means writing my fingers to the bone since I teach completely online this semester), attending fantastic auditions for our drama department’s upcoming series of short films called Haunted Hendo (I am directing a script my daughter wrote, and she is directing one I wrote), and unfortunately, satisfying the economic and data gods (at least 1/3 of my job these days), so I do not have much time at all to write.

And yet…..

I must express my deep discontent with the state of higher education during this time, only a very small part that can be blamed on the pandemic. I will do so with one of the most romantic of British Romantics, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Take it away, Percy Bysshe!!!!

Photo by Louis on Pexels.com

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Yes, Scarlett, I know. Tomorrow is another day.

And it’s the last day, August 31, to submit to the fall/winter edition of Teach. Write. Here are the submission guidelines. I will be glad to take a look at your work.

CAMPUS, I haven’t forgotten you, you silly little satirical novel that wants to be a musical and is now being podcasted. Thursday, September 2, is the goal to air Season 2, Episode 2, so look for the link here at Hey, Mrs. Winkler, and to all my teacher friends, Hang in there! It’s almost Tuesday, but Monday (Labor Day) is comin’!

Die Gedanken sind frei

Classes start tomorrow.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Yes, they do.

That is about all I can say except very soon, I will have a new episode of CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical and is now a podel (podcasted novel). Fasten Your Seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy episode.

Also, back with a couple more book reviews, AND there is still time to submit to Teach. Write: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal (deadline is September 1), so send in your work, teachers, since you have all that extra time on your hands. Remember, writing is therapy–get it all out!!! And then get back to the “business” of changing people’s lives forever for the good!! Look here for submission guidelines.

I can’t say what is going on, but it makes Mrs. Winkler quite peeved.

However, I will leave you with the lyrics to one of my favorite German folksongs taught to me years ago by my wonderful German professor Brunhilda Rowe during an intensive summer workshop when I was in undergraduate school:

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!


Drum will ich auf immer den Sorgen entsagen
und will mich auch nimmer mit Grillen mehr plagen.
Man kann ja im Herzen stets lachen und scherzen
und denken dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

An English Translation

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like shadows in the night.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!

I think what I want, and what delights me,
still always quietly [well, maybe not] and as it is suitable [okay, I slip up some].
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
It is a wasted act
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free!


So I will renounce my sorrows forever,
and never again will torture myself with fanciful thoughts.
In my heart, I can always laugh and joke
and think all at once: Thoughts are free!

All the best to my fellow teachers whose hearts and minds are with their students and colleagues right now!! We have done what people thought could not be done, yet more is demanded of us now than ever. NEVERTHELESS, we are strong, we are resilient, and we will not only survive but thrive!!

TEACH ON!!!

Mrs. Winkler Workshops and Reads

I have been busy, as usual, but having loads of fun and enjoying my summer immensely. Last weekend I attended my fourth Squire Writers’ Workshop sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network at Appalachian State University in Boone. I usually attend the fiction workshop, but this time I challenged myself with the creative non-fiction class taught by Zachary Vernon, an English professor at Appalachian State University.

Professor Vernon is an excellent instructor–knowledgeable, informative, and most of all, respectful of each writer’s work. I am working on a book about teaching, which my mother has inspired me to write. When I was visiting her in Alabama after her recent hospital stay and was talking about some of my work in my classes this past year, she said, “Katie, you should write a book about teaching.” How could I say no?

I took a chapter of the book in progress for critiquing at the workshop and received such encouragement as well as fantastic suggestions for improvement. Not only that, but I made new writer friends and reestablished friendships with writers I have met in previous conferences. I stayed in a dorm, ate in the cafeteria, drank beer at a popular student watering hole, ate dinner at a professor’s lovely home, and just had a great time. So good for the soul to be around people, other than my dear family and close friends, who encourage and support me.

If you do not know about the North Carolina Writers’ Network, then I encourage you to take a look. I have been a member for quite a few years and am now on the board. Even if you don’t live in North Carolina, you can take advantage of the many opportunities available to writers, including online classes. I am pleased that I have been asked to facilitate an online workshop about alternatives to traditional publication, including blogging, of course.

Click here if you would like more information about the network and the whole 21-22 online workshop series, including my session: “The Big Share: Alternative Forms of Publication in a Digital Age” (Multigenre).

Just a few days before the workshop, I taught 5th and 6th graders during the drama camp at my church. From casting to performance in 4 1/2 days. The camp was something I was, frankly, dreading but ended up enjoying. More about drama camp in another post.

Before that I had a stretch of not too much activity (thank the Lord), so I did some reading. First was Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age. Again, my dear mother suggested this book to me. Our politics don’t always align, but as she read a review of this book to me when I went to visit, I thought it sounded interesting, and it was. Feeny is able to explain what I have long seen as a problem in American education–the emphasis on where children learn, using children as a way up the social ladder.

However, he does not vilify parents. Far from it. Of course, he discusses the role parents have, especially privileged ones, in pushing for their children’s entrance into elite kindergartens and private schools and then on into the most prestigious colleges and universities, but he explores at length what drives these parents and what the consequences are for less privileged students.

Feeney suggests that the institutions, through the admissions offices primarily, are perpetuating this class bias by increasing the competition and constantly changing the requirements for admission to make themselves look better.

When discussing the current admissions scandals, he says, “The incentives that drive the process leave us in our current unhappy predicament, in which everyone seems to acknowledge that college admissions has gone wildly out of whack, but the only people truly situated to make it better–the admissions officers of prestigious colleges and universities-keep introducing new ways to make it worse.”

Despite his indictment of admissions departments, Feeney acknowledges that the problems of our current educational institutions are a result of a cultural shift where a child’s education is no longer a means to an end but a constant series of wasteful competitions. “This happens,” he writes, “when competition becomes a self-fueling cycle, competition for its own sake, and it consumes more value than it generates.”

It is not only the elite in society who are generating this “dissipative rivalry,” to use a term Feeney borrows from his research. I see this clearly at the community college level–basing the success or failure of a college on the number of students recruited and retained long enough to “count,” encouraging high school students to take more and more college level courses without determining if the students are ready academically or psychologically for those classes, steering students toward business, STEM, and health-related programs instead of promoting all programs of a college. The list goes on and on.

You can see that Feeney’s book had an impact on me, and its more conservative approach to the problem in a strange way increased its veracity in my mind. We don’t have to be on the same political spectrum to agree that something’s rotten in American education today and that we need to work to change it.

photo by Katie Winkler

The next book I will review is special to my heart because it is a gift from my only child. She is a music technician who loves manga and anime, especially horror. A few years ago I wrote a stage adaptation of Frankenstein, and Hannah created some of the music and sound effects for the show. She regularly searches the manga section at local bookstores for new horror titles and found this version of Frankenstein by celebrated manga artist, Junji Ito. The adaptation is more faithful than most versions I’ve read, especially at the beginning, and the art is simply astounding–truly imaginative and appropriately horrific.

Following Junji’s adaptation is a series of original horror tales, featuring a school boy, name Oshikiri. I enjoyed all of these tales, but my favorite was “The Walls.” Spooky. Spooky.

The best thing about this book, of course, is that it is a gift from my kid–not for any other reason except she saw it at the bookstore and thought I would like it. Pretty cool, huh?

Last book I finished reading before I got so busy is pure escapist fun–Worth Dying For, a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. Jack Reacher is an ex-military police officer who roams the country righting wrong, fighting evil, and working hard to stay alive. In this novel, Reacher finds himself in Nebraska, trying to solve the disappearance of an eight-year old girl.

photo by Katie Winkler

I like that Child spends time with characters that are often simply glossed over in action thrillers, present just to give the hero someone to save. Not so in this the 15th Jack Reacher novel. Dorothy Coe, a woman in her 60’s who lost her daughter and her husband years before, is the typical grieving mother in expected and poignant ways, but she is also smart, brave, and tough. Since she is about my age, I kind of like this portrayal.

I’m still reading and stocking up on my titles for my trip to Pennsylvania, including the poetry books by my friends at the writers’ workshop and finishing Coyote Loop by my friend Charles Fiore, so be watching for more reviews. Oh, I hope to get another episode of CAMPUS out soon as well.

The summer isn’t over yet!!!

“To the hard of hearing you shout”

Photo by C. MacCauley–CC by-SA 3.0

In 1983 I wrote my senior undergraduate thesis comparing and contrasting the life and works of two great writers I’ve long admired–Franz Kafka and Flannery O’Connor. Both authors’ works are unusual to say the least. Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins with a man finding that he has been transformed into a giant insect; Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” ends with a corrupt bible salesman seducing a strange young woman named Joy-Hulga and stealing her artificial leg.

Many question why a devoutly religious woman from Georgia would write stories with such unusual, grotesque characters and such unsettling, even shocking, plots. One person wrote O’Connor and asked her why she wrote the way she did. Her answer still speaks to me:

“To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical is my attempt to follow in the footsteps of O’Connor. It gives voice to my concerns about what is happening to higher education in this country. It is not intended to be my reality, but it is representative of a reality as I see it.

And lament it.

No, the campus in my novel is not representative of the campus where I work or any campus where I have ever worked or studied. The characters, even the human ones, are not descriptive of any person I have ever met. They are symbols only, but they serve my point and they speak for me.

They give me a voice again.

And it’s kind of a funny voice, I think.

The newest episode, that you can access at this link, introduces the fairy godteachers Belinda McBride and Brian Teasdale and features a song with music written and performed by Curtis McCarley, my good friend, former student, and composer for our play A Carolina Story. I had fun singing backup.

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway–Photo by Katie Winkler

George W. Bush and “the soft bigotry of low expectations”

Official Portrait of Former President George W. Bush (Public Domain)

In July 2000, then presidential candidate George W. Bush addressed the NAACP to discuss his plans for educational and economic reform, using the phrase “No Child Left Behind.” Despite how that infamous initiative turned out, the speech that introduced the idea was one of the best speeches I ever heard Bush give, maybe only second behind his speech at the Washington Cathedral after 9/11. Regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum, George W. Bush’s call for educational equity should resonate with us all today.

Recognizing the continuing disparity between the rich and the poor despite the growing prosperity of the nation, Bush says, “Our nation must make new a commitment to equality and upward mobility to all of the citizens.” One of the ways to make this happen in Bush’s mind was to equalize educational opportunities for every American. That was the dream anyway. Introducing his plan, Bush refers to “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” of how we have become complacent in offering opportunities to all no matter what their position in society.

In the last few years of a long career as an educator, I find myself discouraged and even a bit despondent as we move ever away from the lofty goal set forward in Bush’s speech. In 2000, the community college was still a place where those, especially the traditionally underserved, could gain a quality education that would allow them to advance in society, perhaps gaining a two-year degree, qualifying them for a trade, or leading to the opportunities and rewards, both tangible and intangible, that come with further educational opportunities. The goal was not only to provide meaningful work through a real education but also to bring real meaning to their education apart from work, enriching their lives and their communities in the process.

However, a disturbing trend is increasing at alarming rates within our society, continuing its spread to our colleges and universities–the lowering of the bar for the sake of efficiency, and of course, cost effectiveness. Increased pressure from students, faculty, administrators, and society in general to make English classes easier. Decrease the requirements and the standard so students can get that piece of paper sooner. Make gateway English classes less rigorous (for their sakes, of course) because it is too hard for people who work, too hard for people with children, too hard for low income people, too hard for people who didn’t get a good high school education or who are still in high school or who have been out of high school for a while. We can’t expect OUR students to maintain Standard English in a college-level English class, can we?

Do you hear what I hear? It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Do we expect less because it costs too much time and money to expect more? Do we not think our students are worth the effort to push for excellence in the name of true learning? We discriminate when we ask so little. It is demeaning and arrogant. Who are we to expect so little? In the Letter to the Romans Chapter 12, verse 3, Paul writes, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (New International Version). Are we, am I, thinking too highly of myself? Am I, are we, guilty of the bigotry of low expectations? Perhaps I am the chief of all sinners in this regard.

But I repent and encourage others in society to do so as well.

What are we really saying when we consider “meeting expectations” as equal to an A instead of the C it should indicate? Does our soft bigotry sound like this:

“It’s okay, Nondescript C Student, that you plagiarized the paper, even though I have provided sources, conducted classes on the subject, and provided workshops that you didn’t attend. You just didn’t know what you were doing. I see now that your academic dishonesty is my fault. I mean you work, right? You hate that job and need at least an associate’s degree to do what you really want to do for a living, but I get it. Who wants to really put in any effort to actually learn the subject when it’s a subject you are being forced to take and don’t enjoy at all? Yes, I think putting in some effort to actually read three pages in the text and view a five-minute video explaining in-text citations is a bit too much to ask when we are in the midst of a pandemic. I can’t expect you to have time with all that you are doing. I don’t really know what you are doing, but I know it must be way too much to find time for the education you say you want. You just want it on your terms, not your instructor’s, am I right?

“I’m probably not being flexible enough. Or explaining things well enough. Or maybe my online class is not designed properly. Or perhaps I am not considering your learning style sufficiently. In exchange for my poor pedagogy, let me just allow you to redo that paper. It won’t help you, but it will make me feel like I helped you, so I will feel better, and you will not feel frustrated and complain about me to my superiors, which will make them feel better. But first, let me mark every single error in the paper for you, so that you will not have to think about how to find problems in your writing and correct them. I mean, after all, you aren’t really going to need to know how to properly revise, edit, or document your essays because, I mean, really, how likely are you to go on and get your BA or BS?

“Besides, we need you to be trained for the type of job that people like us, and our children, don’t want to do. We need somebody to do these jobs. It will be easy with a little bit of training to find the type of employment that a person of your background is suited for. Do you even really need a liberal arts education for the kind of life you’re bound to lead? Why in the world should we as a society expect you to read and analyze a poem? Not that I would ever ask you to do such a thing. Read a whole novel by the fourteenth week of the semester? That’s unreasonable. You’re the first in your family to go to college AND you’re still a high school student AND you work AND it’s a pandemic. I can’t ask such a thing of you.

“Now, critically reading novels and poetry requires noticing small details as well as understanding figurative language (like sarcasm) and the nuance of language. That kind of deep reading, especially by authors outside of your demographic, leads to things like, I don’t know, developing empathy. But why would a person like you need to empathize with your fellow human beings during and after a global pandemic? Not really very practical, is it? Not with the economy in the shape that it is and people’s mental health deteriorating. I don’t want to inconvenience you or cause you more stress, so don’t let correcting a little ‘ole plagiarism infraction stand in the way of going to your low-paying, soul-sucking job. So, I am just going to ignore the little mistake of copying word for word from your source without quotations or in-text citation. I know you didn’t intend to do it. We’ll just forget it ever happened, shall we? It will be easier for all of us.

“And while I’m at it, I suppose I should have a meeting with you to help you make the revisions and edits that I have marked. Oh, you don’t have time for an in-person meeting at my appointment times and office hours? How about some other time? You don’t want to come to campus for an in-person meeting. How about a virtual one? A ten-minute phone call? Just don’t have the time? In that case, since you just need a C or above to pass on to the really important training that you will actually need in real life, let me just find some extra credit you can do to make up those measly eight or nine percentage points you need to have a C. (A person like you doesn’t need to know how to communicate clearly and effectively in English, do you? How will that help you get a job?)”

The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech for the first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Public Domain)

Okay, perhaps I am too carried away, but I had to get it out of my system. When I write in this satiric way, I hear the truth–too many of us who cling to our degrees, careers, businesses, and positions in society–who drive sedans and SUV’s, live in comfortable homes, enjoy financial security and a standing in society–too many of us who think so highly of ourselves are, in essence, only “insects on the leaf” as the Ghost of Christmas Present says, looking down on “our hungry brothers in the dust.”

And when, or if, our conscience is inconveniently pricked, we try to cover up our sin, by “making it easier” for the ragged rabble, requiring less and less and less of those poor, pitiful students. Sadly shaking our heads, we move to wipe every tear from their eyes, saying, “Well, really, what did we expect?”

Encouragement

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

One of the employees in our public relations department at our college had a great idea to encourage students during this difficult time by compiling short videos from faculty, staff, and administrators. I have been enjoying watching them as they’ve come out and was finally able to record my own, but alas, I was too late to be included in one of the compilations, so I decided to show it to you. I will also link this blog post to my students.

This video took only a few minutes to complete. I used the camera on my laptop, which automatically downloaded as an mp4 file, uploaded it to YouTube, copied the link, and pasted it on the blog. Wallah!

This little video may not make it to many students at my college to encourage them, but making it sure encouraged me for some weird reason.

Mrs. Winkler in Quarantine

If you haven’t had a chance to read the latest edition of Teach. Write., I encourage you to take a look:

Note: Edited version available for download. I will post the print version when it is available.