Conviction and Renewal

My favorite summer place

This summer continues to be a time of renewal for my spirit, but it hasn’t been easy. My reading adventures, working on this crazy satirical novel , and being alone so much have led me to confront many uncomfortable realities about myself–I have lacked resilience and settled for mediocrity much of my life. I’m often petty, self-absorbed and self-righteous, easily angered, hypocritical, thoughtless, vain, jealous, etc., etc.

Oh, don’t worry, I continue to love myself. That’s kind of the problem. I think of myself more highly than I ought, methinks.

Many of the books I’ve chosen to read this summer have helped me to see some of my many weaknesses, and also, thankfully, validated some of my strengths. As always, the two are inextricably bound to one another. But the book I just finished has not only convicted but also bolstered my spirit and renewed my resolve.

The book is Real Christianity, a paraphrase (by Bob Beltz) of William Wilberforce’s A Practical view of the prevailing religious system of Professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity written in 1797. The title alone explains why I read the paraphrase, but someday I will read the original.

William Wilberforce was an abolitionist and member of parliament who helped to end slavery in England. His book, however, never explicitly mentions the battle to abolish slavery, and it addresses, as the original title suggests, the middle and upper classes of the British Empire.

But it didn’t take long at all for me to see myself and my country in the pages of this modern paraphrase, written in 2006 by the man who was one of the producers of the very good biopic Amazing Grace, that tells the story of Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight. More about the movie later.

Many dog-eared pages

For example, here is a quote from early in the book:

“We must remember that almost any ideology can be distorted and misused to bring misery to multitudes or justification to the most bizarre behavior. Nothing is more dangerous. That which is intended to motivate goodness and restrain evil actually can become the instrument of that which it intended to restrain. History is full of examples of how virtues such as liberty or patriotism become twisted when separated from a healthy and authentic faith. Twisted men in every generation and occupation have twisted whatever they must twist to get what they want. Why should we expect that some within the Church would not be guilty of the same actions?” (46).

Wow! See what I mean? And it was written in the 18th Century! Wilberforce himself struggled with the same issues he writes about. He is remembered for being a force for good, for valid reasons, but, of course, he struggled and failed miserably at times, especially in allowing slave labor, thinly veiled by the concept of “apprentices,” to continue in the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone. See this interesting article on the subject in The Guardian.

See what I mean? Conviction and renewal. Convicted by Wilberforce’s words and renewed by the knowledge that his failure was, and mine is, inevitable. Renewed? How does being reminded of failure possibly revive my soul? Another paradox of my faith, I suppose. I see that the answer is not abandoning my faith or ceasing to struggle to do good, but knowing that I can ask for and WILL receive forgiveness, I can continue striving to do some good in the world.

Not a bad lesson to pass on to my students, is it?

Here’s another one:

“Money and ambition have become idols in our time, especially for individuals in the business and professional worlds. Disguised as common business practice, these forces are allowed to gather great momentum in our lives. Arguments about being diligent at what we do, becoming successful in our profession or providing for our families seduce us so that we no longer have a clear sense of judgment about these issues. Our work consumes us” (73).

It is important to keep in mind that he is addressing Christians here, not people who do not claim to be believers. Knowing that, these words strike me to the core. I have let my work consume me. I have become as data-driven as the rest of the world. What is my retention rate? How many students passed that essay with a C or better? Let me check how many hours I spent working on the LMS. Look at those FTE’s, will you?

I am convicted, but I am renewed because, since March, I have been working from home, so thankful that I have been forced to concentrate my efforts on the people who need me–my family, my friends, and, my students.

It’s about time.

****

If you want to know more about Wilberforce and the battle to end slavery in the British Empire, I highly recommend the film Amazing Grace. Strong performances, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as England’s youngest ever prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who was a great friend of Wilberforce’s.

Work Cited

Wilberforce, William. Real Christianity. Revised and edited by Bob Beltz, Regal, 2006.

Reading and Writing

My strange satirical novel has gnomes and fairy “godteachers” among other strange and mysterious students, teachers, and administrators, so this seems an apt illustration

After November’s National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), I had about 26,000 usable (rough draft usable) words of my new satirical novel about higher education in the South called CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.

I am happy to announce that since May 19, I have written 38, 173 more words! I know to some of you out there this is no big deal at all, but to me this is major as I have never before been able to adjust to a daily writing schedule (I do take one floating day off a week, which has helped greatly). I have exceeded my quota each day, which more than makes up for the days off.

I have also participated in craft lectures (via Zoom) by the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the Dramatists Guild of America. All have been useful, but this past weekend I was able to join 11 other writers for an extended workshop with Bryn Chancellor, author of Sycamore, which is now on my reading list. It was the first online Squires Writing Workshop, a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

The emphasis was on the opening of a story or novel. We looked at just the first 1,200 words of the project. To begin with we looked at and shared examples of strong openings. Then, we did some writing exercises and shared. The next session we did another exercise and then had a fascinating and informative lecture about openings. The final three sessions were inspiring and helpful. We had all received each other’s work ahead of time, and all were faithful to read and comment on each person’s manuscript. I got so much out of the critiques, even when my work was not being discussed. It was a wonderful four days, and well worth it.

Look into the North Carolina Writers’ Network–a valuable organization for any North Carolina writer. We have members outside of North Carolina, too, so check it out!! ncwriters.org

And my reading continues–

Here are the goodreads reviews of the latest three:

MOO by Jane Smiley, 1995

***Spoiler Alert*** Perfect timing for me to read this satire about higher education as I work on my own novel with a similar theme. Full disclosure: I participated in a writing residency at Brevard College, studying under Jane Smiley, and she was a fabulous instructor, so I am partial to her work since that time. One of the things I like about her work is its variety. I also love her ability to portray the inner life of animals so that we can relate to them yet still see, smell, feel their animal nature. In this book she gifts us with the tragic character of the hog, Earl Butz, whose “job” it is to stuff himself. Oh, my, what a wonderful and compelling character. The most sympathetic of them all, which, I think, is Smiley’s intent.

Smiley seems to have a bucket list approach to writing, wanting to challenge herself, not wanting to repeat the same style. This is certainly a very different book than her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, and hasn’t been as critically acclaimed, but in some ways I like it better, probably because of the satiric wit, and her ability to meld the tragic with the comic, which is my favorite kind of writing.

Ultimately, the book is comic (the last section begins with a chapter entitled “Deus ex machina”), and ends with a wedding. Ah, I see, I guess I’m a little slow–A Thousand Acres (King Lear)–Shakespearean tragedy; Moo (Ends with a wedding)–Shakespearean comedy.

Clever!

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

This interesting memoir reads like fiction and at times the story is so bizarre and inconsistent that I think maybe it is fiction. However, I know that memory is a tricky thing, especially if you are the victim of childhood abuse, and I am convinced that Tara Westover certainly was.

I see why Westover named her book Educated, but I think it is more about Emancipation than it is Education, and I found myself wishing that she had spent less time with her highly dysfunctional family and more time with the way her education helped her break away.

I also think she absorbed a great deal more knowledge while she was being homeschooled than she gives herself or her parents for, but I certainly understand the omission.

Satyricon by Petronius (1st Century)

** spoiler alert ** Yes, it is considered to be the first novel. Yes, it gives valuable information about language and culture during the end times of the Roman Empire. Yes, it is satire, but it is also quite depraved. Basically Roman porn. I skipped through much of it because I couldn’t stomach it.

I primarily read it because I heard it was the first time the phrase “silent majority” was used, referring to the dead. I found that reference in Book 2 and skimmed Books 3 and 4 but unfortunately did see references to rape, including child rape (in book one), orgies, and cannibalism among other perversions. Call it classic if you want to. I just say Yuck! 

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer 2020

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Thanks to the pandemic, this has been a unique summer for me and almost everybody else, but not all bad. My reading continues, I have attended several interesting online seminars, and the work on my novel progresses. I am also making plans for the upcoming semester of teaching.

The big difference is not traveling, which I do greatly miss. I have family and friends in Alabama, Colorado, Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Germany and elsewhere. I like traveling to visit them, and I also like to explore within my own state, attending meetings for the North Carolina Writers Network and the Dramatists’ Guild of America as well as “adventuring” with my daughter Hannah.

This summer I am at home almost always–weird.

I have developed routines, which is actually a novelty for me–I tend to improvise, but I am doing more of the things that are good for me, including exercising, reading, and writing more than I usually do.

The cover of Wolfie: A Cat Beyond Time shows a large cat tossing an hour glass into the air.

I have been posting about my reading, which I have really ramped up this summer. My friend Joe Perrone, Jr. (check out his blog) asked me to read and review his wife’s debut middle-grade novel, Wolfie: A Cat Beyond Time, which I was glad to do; Becky is my friend, too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and if you have YA readers in your life, I highly recommend that you purchase it for them, especially if they like cats as much as I do.

Here is the review I posted on Goodreads:

History is best learned through storytelling, and that is why this middle- grade novel would be a good addition to any middle school classroom bookshelf or young readers’ collection. It is part historical fiction, part adventure story, and part fantasy, a compelling combination that balances fact with fiction. The two young protagonists are charming, and Wolfie, the big cat that serves as a catalyst to their adventure, well, he is magnificent. One of the aspects that I like best is the balance the book brings to the history of the Old West. We get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but infused with enough humor and positivity to be appropriate for the targeted age group. An enjoyable and educational read for any youngster.

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

I have also been writing. Boy, have I been writing–30,000 words since May 19. I have never written almost every single day, but this summer I have. The two secrets for me have been determining how many words a day, approximately, I need to write to have a rough draft of my novel completed by the time school starts in August and then meeting or exceeding my quota each day. So far I have written six days a week and exceeded my goal most days, so I am ahead of the game. I should mention that I started out with 26, 000 words already written from November’s National Novel Writing Month. ( I wrote 50,000 but only half were usable.)

Of course, a first rough draft is a long way from finished novel, but I feel encouraged because I have wanted to finish a novel for four summers now but haven’t met my goal. I am determined to this year.

I am also busy attending webinars, submitting short stories to journals, and preparing for my classes in the fall, but I will save thoughts about those activities for future posts.

So come back and check them out!!!!

Are you writing this summer, too? Do you have a poem, essay, flash fiction, short story, or short drama you would like to share? Why not submit to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal?

You can find submission guidelines HERE.

I look forward to reading your work!!

Two More Books

It was gratifying to read Meagan Lucas’ debut novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs because Ms. Lucas contributed her story “Daisy Mae Returns” to the Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write (43-45). Something special about that for me as an English teacher, especially since Ms. Lucas is one as well.

Taking place in the early ’80’s, the novel tells the story of Jolene, who finds herself, pregnant, alone, and abandoned in a small coastal town. She makes her way to the mountains of Western North Carolina, where she encounters more loneliness and hostility until she meets someone as lonely and broken as she and learns to trust, love, and hope again.

I liked the way the story develops with the distinctive alternating perspectives of a woman and a man. Ms. Lucas effectively captures the struggle of how two ordinary people find a way despite loneliness and despair. Our world needs more of their spirited perseverance.

The book is published by Main Street Rag. Hope you will buy it and support a promising new voice in Southern fiction.

A very different book I finally finished is an extraordinary biography of Johann Sebastian Bach by German musicologist Christoph Wolff.

I started reading this book quite a while ago, but it is difficult reading for me because I am not that knowledgeable about music, and the book goes into great technical detail about Bach’s compositional style.

I am, however, knowledgeable about scholarly research and can recognize the incredible achievement this book is, giving readers a detailed look at Bach as performer, composer, scholar, theologian, husband, and father. Also, even though I didn’t understand it all, I was fascinated when Wolff explains Bach’s music in detail.

Well worth the time.

At the end of the last chapter, Wolff quotes from another Bach biography, the New Bach Reader, relating an anecdote about Mozart upon his first hearing of the motet Singet dem Herrn, ein neues Lied:

“Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out ‘What is this?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: ‘Now there is something one can learn from!'”

And I did!

The text, in translation, of the aria:

God, take us to Yourself from now on!
For without You we can accomplish nothing
with all of our belongings.
Therefore be our protection and light,
and if our hope does not deceive us,
You will make it happen in the future.
Happy is the person who strictly and firmly
abandons himself to You and Your mercy!

Now listen, dear reader, to Vocalconsort Berlin singing Sing to the Lord a New Song:

Mrs. Winkler Keeps Reading

Updated June 16, 2020

NOTE: Scroll to the end to see additions to this review. CAUTION: SPOILERS

I joined an online book club for Western Carolina University alumni, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the first book we are reading. The book has given me some food for thought and its simple formula for changing habit (cue, routine, reward) has been actually working for me. I have completed short yoga routines for 80 days in a row and am regularly meeting my quota of 600 words a day towards completion of my novel, writing six of seven days a week for the past three weeks, just to name two examples.

Not bad.

One of the main themes of the book is not trying to suppress bad habits but to replace bad habits with positive ones through changing the routine. Duhigg explains and gives examples of the idea that habits are born of cues that trigger the behavior and lead to some kind of reward. He calls it The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish an old habit. You can only change it.”

He shows how this works by using a multitude of examples. In the first part of the book he shows how mainly positive examples, including Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who changed the team’s habits to eventually lead them to the Super Bowl and Bob Wilson, the founder of AA, how the program’s success for so many people comes in part from establishing new habits.

But in both cases, Duhigg talks about belief, not necessarily a spiritual belief, but some sort of faith must be present to successfully form good habits and this faith is normally found by being part of a group.

The chapter that will be most useful to me as a teacher is “Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success.” This chapter talks about how Starbucks had become a powerhouse coffeehouse chain by, simply put, teaching willpower. At the same time, Starbucks has found that giving employees a voice is one of the ways to help develop the self-discipline and willpower needed to train and retain productive employees.

The implications for teaching are obvious–our students need to have more power over what they are learning. If they feel they have choice, they will be more likely to exhibit the self-control necessary to complete their studies

Interesting.

One of the most relevant parts of the book for today is “Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis.” Duhigg gives an example of a Rhode Island hospital that made radical changes for the better by changing institutional habits following the senseless death of one of their patients.

Following the example, Duhigg states:

“But sometimes, even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities. Sometimes, in the heat of a crisis, the right habits emerge.”

Updated June 16, 2020

In response to a question posed by our book club leader, I wrote the following about the chapter in the book I appreciate in some ways but took exception to in others:

Overall, I have a positive reaction to the book and its author, but my perspective changed quite a bit towards both as I was reading Chapter 7, especially the Target example. The author seemed to treat this example in a positive light at first–as if intrusion into a woman’s reproductive privacy is no big deal. It is only when the marketing team and the data researcher finally question whether his intrusive data collection would actually make money or not that they apparently begin to question how pregnant women might feel.

Interesting also that the author gives an example of an angry father to make his point about negative reactions from the public. I found myself wondering what was happening to the poor young woman who was the daughter of that angry father. How did she feel about the father talking to a manager at Target about her pregnancy? Did the father kick her out of the house because she got pregnant? Did father and daughter reconcile? Is he forcing her to keep the child or marry, or not marry, the father of her child against her wishes? How does the young woman’s mother feel about all of this? But none of this matters to the data collectors or the author of the book, it seems. Maybe it does, but not enough to find out and give examples of how any individual woman feels about this kind of marketing strategy, I guess.

Perhaps the author being a male and the subject of his example being a male was my cue to go to the routine of rolling my eyes at this obtuse behavior. The reward is another great example for my students of sexism and manipulative advertising tactics.

After reading this chapter I was reminded how important it is to continue teaching my students about the power of persuasive techniques that are legal but border on, or are downright, unethical but widely accepted as the norm because they make a lot of money. It is up to my students as consumers to use critical thinking when viewing advertising and recognize the incredible powers of data-driven marketing. It is up to me as their instructor to provide proof of these questionable tactics and for that, I am grateful to the author and his book.

One final question: Why did the author not comment on the initial question the marketers asked the mathematician to solve?

Here’s the question: “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?” (182). (Emphasis mine).

That’s okay? I guess so because “Figuring out whose pregnant…could make Target millions of dollars” (184), and this little gem “So for companies, pregnant women are goldmines” (192). Oh, I get it. Priorities.

I think if there is a new edition, Duhigg should consider leaving out Chapter 7. It was the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five. At the very least, he should spend some time trying to get at least one pregnant woman’s view of this kind of advertising.

I know I have harped on the bad, but there is much good to be gleaned from the book as well, so I am glad I read it and have taken part in the discussion.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Redux

I finished reading Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle, written 20 years ago but still relevant today. I don’t know where to begin talking about it. There are so many things it touched on, including cultural and creation care, the dangers of corporate control of the arts and sciences, of people whose primary interest are wealth and power having control of higher education. I suppose that latter point is the one that resonates with me the most as an English instructor at a community college during this time.

This time. How strange it is. There are so many questions, and I can’t say that reading Berry’s book has offered me any specific answers, but perhaps it gives me something more important.

A new outlook.

At first Berry seems to be criticizing modern science, but it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that his objections are more towards the commercialization of science and how it is being isolated from other academic disciplines–how undergraduate programs in our colleges and universities are moving away from the traditional idea of one student embracing multiple disciplines, working across curriculums for the good of all, to more and more isolation and specialization. Ironically, this movement is causing us to be less and less concerned with specific problems, and more importantly, the people who are right around us.

Early on, when Berry introduces his thesis, he caught my attention, discussing what he means by professionalism, which is not what most people think when they hear the word:

“All of the disciplines are increasingly identifiable as professionalisms, which are increasingly conformable to the aims and standards of industrialism…The professionals don’t care [his italics] where they are….They subscribe to the preeminence of the mind and (logically from that) of the career. The questions of propriety, calling as they must for local answers, call necessarily for small answers. But small local answers are now as far beneath the notice of porfessionalism as of commercialism. Professionalism aspires to big [his italics] answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions. It longs, moreover, for answers that are uniform and universal–the same styles, explanations, routines, tools, methods, models, beliefs, amusements, etc., for everybody everywhere. And like the corporations, whose appetite for ‘growth’ seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. It is astonishing to realize how quickly and shamelessly doctors and lawyers and even college professors have taken to drumming up trade, and how readily hospitals, once run according to the laws of healing, mercy, and charity, have submitted to the laws of professionalism, industrial methodology, careerism, and profit” (pp 14-15).

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Do you know how relieved I am that someone who is so widely respected, a prophet of our time, has written these words that my soul has been shouting for years?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

A publically funded college is a place where learning is fostered for all of the people in the community, not to be centered on corporate or government interests. Not that these interests are unimportant. Of course, they are, but they are best served by a faculty dedicated to teaching students to think and communicate clearly and critically, a staff that supports students and their instructors toward that end, an administration that is devoted to the welfare of ALL students, faculty, and staff. No matter what career the student is interested in pursuing, even if she dreams of being a writer, an artist, a musician or, God forbid, an actor. No matter what subject the professor teaches, even if he teaches the history of jazz. No matter what the staff members do, whether they be registrars or receptionists.

It is not the job of any administrator, board member or government entity involved with a college or university to decide what learning is valuable and which is not.

The quote above raises another issue that has long been heavy on my heart– the insane idea of trying to standardize college-level instruction. Why do so many in higher education think it is a benefit to a young adult to encounter the same material, assignments, activities, grading rubrics, online platforms? Why this emphasis on sameness? How can students learn to navigate an ever-changing world if they don’t start learning to adapt to change while they are in college?

Wendell Berry gave me the answer–because sameness comes from the corporate mindset of “producing” as many “successful” graduates as cheaply and quickly as possible. And what is the sign of success?–a job.

But, I digress. Sorry, it’s the way I’m built. Just ask my students.

Berry discusses three institutions he feels are most affected by this professionalism–science, the arts, and religion. He begins with science and much of what he says has great relevance to two crises in our world today–do I need to even name them?

When discussing the limitations of science due to the deficiencies of our mental capacities (we don’t like to think we are limited but that we are is beyond doubt), Berry says the following:

“The fallibility of a human system of thought is always the result of incompleteness. In order to include some things, we invariably exclude others. We can’t include everything because we don’t know everything…. The incompleteness of a system is rarely if ever perceptible to those who made it or to those who benefit from it. To those who are excluded from it, the incompleteness of a system is, or eventually becomes, plain enough. One weakness of the present system,… is that it excludes all inscrutable and ineffable things, including the life history of the human soul” (pp. 34-35).

When a writer like Wendell Berry, not only a writer and a poet, but also a farmer and conservationist, some would even call an environmental activist, writes about science, he embues his words with the inscrutability and ineffabilty that he sees lacking in modern science. How he strings the words together, how he brings more than simple meaning but part of his soul to the page is evidence of what is at the crux of what I think is his intended meaning.

Science, the arts, religion, they need each other, depend on each other.

We need the complexity, the exactness of science, we need the mystery and symbolism of the arts, we need the sanctity and hope of religion to help bring us together and to help us include those who have for too long been excluded.

I don’t have time to talk about all of the many great ideas in Berry’s book, so I will conclude this scattered review with one piece of advice: Read it!

And with one last quote from the book:

“If we were as fearful of our knowledge and our power as in our ignorance we ought to be–and as our cultural and religious traditions instruct us to be–then we would be trying to reconnect the disiplines both within the universities and in the conduct of the professions” (p. 145).

Amen.

Work Cited

Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Continues

I will be adding more to this post in the near future to give more details about these two books, so stay tuned!!!

Also, updates on the novel and on Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

I have had this book for years and started reading it but put it aside. I’m not sure why; perhaps the time is right for it now, but it is a marvel. So much of it is resonating with me now, especially as I am working on a novel that satirizes higher education in the world today. It’s like I’m doing accidental research.

One of my alma maters, Western Carolina University offered an online book club for alumni, so I joined. Why not?

This is the first book we are reading. I am about half way through, but I got distracted once I started reading Berry’s book. However, I am going to be excited to get back to it because I am definitely learning a great deal.

Teach. Write. Spring/Summer 2020

The 2020 Spring/Summer edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal is here! You can access the journal by clicking the Download button below:

The cover of this edition represents the theme of the one-room schoolhouse, which seems appropriate at this time when so many of us are teaching and learning from our own little rooms.

I hope reading this journal will provide you with a sense of unity and solidarity in the midst of our forced separation.

Until we meet again.

I will post the link when the print version of the journal is available.

Rediscovering Music Faves

I have listened to my “Working Music” folder a great deal this week while I transition all my classes to online delivery. I chose to randomize my playlist and have been so amazed at some of the great music that has come up to soothe my soul.

Here are a couple of my faves:

The Canadian Chamber Chorus’s version of Tabula Rass by Don MacDonald. The translation of the words are beautiful and have spoken to me during this time and is a meaningful message to give my students right now:

In my arms, breathe.

Life without limits.

Light of day, dark night.

Sleep, dream, rest in safety.

With your heart, your soul, listen and know this truth:

Within you are boundless futures, if you are given freedom;

freedom to grow,

freedom to learn,

freedom to touch,

freedom to feel,

freedom to imagine,

freedom to love,

freedom to be loved.

Another great song, totally different style–I’m Alive by Dean Dillon / Kenneth Chesney / Mark Tamburino and performed by Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews.

The lyrics are also very timely for my students and me. Go to this link to see them: I’m Alive Lyrics

So I take a listen. I take some big breaths. I make a cup of tea. I start grading more papers.

Ah, the teaching life!

The horrible looking ad that is probably showing below kind of ruins the effect of my post–thanks Word Press

Thoughts at Year’s End

auditorium benches chairs class

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I haven’t blogged much this year.

Oh, well.

It isn’t that I’ve lost interest or feel that the blog isn’t important.

I haven’t and it is.

I have been forced to…no, I have chosen, to put my efforts elsewhere.

It has been a pivotal year for me in some ways, and I have discovered many things about myself, my teaching, my students. That’s never a bad thing. It has sometimes been a difficult year, especially for some of the people I love, but even those difficulties are not without worth, without purpose. The sorrows of the year have been tempered with joy. They haven’t necessarily made me stronger, but they have helped me to realize that weakness is not a sin, not evil–it is human.

So here are some thoughts about my year as an English professor:

  • Individual conferences continue to be invaluable and should be done earlier and more often. I have long held research paper conferences with my students and have almost always found them effective, but because the research paper comes later in the semester, some students are too behind to gain the full benefit of a one- on-one meeting time with me, so in the future I want to hold conferences more often.
  • I have always liked Oxford’s “personalised learning” model of tutorials where small groups of students (three or four) meet once or twice a week with a faculty member to discuss readings and essays. Although this style of teaching is not possible when a faculty member has over 110 students in composition-heavy classes like I did this semester, I would like to move in the direction of more individualized instruction when I can and make room for it in my schedule.
  • Less is more. This year, I had too many students, too many papers, too many assignments. For example, at the beginning of the fall 2019 semester, I had 120 students–three first semester English composition classes (close to 60 students and 20 online), one second semester freshman English composition class (20 students), close to 20 online British literature I students (composition heavy) and the rest an online eight-week study skills course. That course may seem like the easy one, but I do a great deal of time-consuming direct communication with students because it is such an important introductory course.
  • I know, I know, some of you teachers out there are scoffing at my “light” load, but these heavy teaching loads are not good for us or our students, and I for one am determined to work on making my grading load lighter so I can do justice to my students and have the time to give more meaningful feedback to them, which leads me to my next thought.
  • Discovering what meaningful feedback is. This year, I have relied more heavily on advanced grading techniques provided by our LMS, particularly rubrics and checklists. I have spent more time tailor-making grading tools for each particular assignment, so each includes more feedback with less effort.
  • I still make some markings directly on more heavily graded essays, but I usually stop at the first paragraph or first page and include a statement from my “quick list” that says “I will stop line editing here. See the rest of the paper for any additional comments.” (I LOVE my quick list embedded in the LMS’s advanced grading system that allows me to save common comments and quickly add them to the graded paper.) Then, when posting the grade I include this comment or one similar to it: “See the rubric and comments on the document for feedback. Contact me if you need more information.”
  • My marks on papers are more useful to me than students. This year I have come to face the fact that most students don’t read or try to understand the marks that I make on their essays, but I continue to line edit the first paragraph or page and make spot comments throughout the essay because it helps me grade more accurately and efficiently. I typically grade ten or more essays in one sitting, so it’s easy to lose track of each paper’s strengths and weaknesses. However, if I have made comments, it’s easy to flip back and re-read them before marking the rubric.
  • The downside of plagiarism detectors. This year, I have encountered less direct word-for-word plagiarism but more academic dishonesty. How can that be? My theory is that students use the plagiarism detection software incorrectly or they do not understand or abide by the basic tenets of proper documentation.
  • Quite a few of my students, therefore, are turning in papers that are at best poorly documented and at worst out-and-out plagiarized because often they will only change around a few words or retain the syntax of the original quote. Sometimes, these quotes are simply dropped into the paper without any attempt to integrate them into the paper. In addition, some students will include complete works cited lists at the end of the papers but have no internal citations. Occasionally, they will question why this is considered plagiarism and seem truly baffled that I would give the paper a low grade or a zero. Next thought.
  • Our society thinks too highly of technology. Don’t get me wrong. Modern educational technology is a great tool. I love it and embrace it, but it is only a tool. It can’t do the heavy lifting required to be a good writer, which comes more from reading and comprehending complex texts than from any other single thing. But online writing, like this blog, does not lend itself to the deep, intense labor of reading that is needed to give birth to good writing. Also, technology makes the process of revision and editing easier in a myriad of ways, but I have yet found a truly effective way to motivate my students to use the tools technology supplies. One draft, and I’m done, seems to be the mantra.
  • Five Easy Ways. One way I have tried to help students grasp the concepts of revision and editing is through my “five easy ways” to revise writing. These are simple concepts that I learned in graduate school that can help students learn to find and revise errors. Not always effective when students have been writing one draft only for years. However, students who persist consistently improve. Isn’t that always the case?
  • The continued value of working with others. I am an extrovert. I tend to draw energy from being around and interacting with people. I like collaboration, working together with people toward a common goal. And I continue to enjoy my extroversion. One of the great things that happened this year was the world premiere of my play Battered, probably the best thing I’ve ever written and would have never happened without the director, who is one of my closest friends, the cast, crew, and so many others. It was wonderful–one of the highlights of my  career as both a teacher and a writer.
  • On the other hand, I have also been learning the value of working alone. I have been a people-pleaser most of my life. It goes against my nature to do things just for me without someone suggesting or guiding me, or vice-versa, but as an effective English instructor with 30 years teaching experience, I now see the value of not trying to convince others that my way is the best way but simply doing things my way to the best of my ability, while listening to other voices I trust, like my colleagues at the college, continuing to research andragogy, the teaching of adults, and being humble enough to honestly assess my teaching and make changes when necessary.
  • One big change I made as a result of teaching an eight-week freshman composition course is streamlining the course–fewer papers, fewer assignments, less ineffective feedback, but more information provided through advanced grading methods, which are standard for all students, and personal communication, only when requested by the student (forcing the students to take more charge of their education has been a big plus). I do NOT plan to teach in the summer ever again, please Lord, no, but I did keep the eight-week model and spread it out to 16 weeks this past semester, and all would have been well if I had not made the stupid decision of picking up a third first semester freshman English course. My fault, not to be repeated.

I definitely have plenty of thoughts floating around, but this blogpost is getting a little long and have a novel to work on and some after Christmas sales to hit, so I will sign off for now and blog some more later.

BTW, this is fun and relaxation for an English professor on holiday.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Everybody!!

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