The First of the Last

Yesterday was the first of the last: the first last day of class for Spring 2014. My evening acting students gave their final scene presentations (though my afternoon Shakespeare students and my Tuesday evening fight students still have another week to go; so next week will officially be the end of teaching for Spring 2014).

A gratuitous shot of one of my bookshelves (Shakespeare... obviously) just 'cause

A gratuitous shot of one of my bookshelves (Shakespeare… obviously) just ’cause

The last day of class is always bittersweet for me. It’s exciting to see how far my students have come, and it’s definitely a downer that I won’t be seeing them on a regular basis anymore. It’s exhilarating to feel that I’ve made a difference in how they view themselves, theatre, or other people, and it’s jarring that I won’t be walking with them any further on their journey. I see my role in the classroom as a guide; I can show them the path but it’s always their choice whether or not to tread it. Now, they’re on their own to machete their way through their own wilderness. They’ll meet other guides along the way who will, hopefully, be able to keep them away from obvious pitfalls and point out the edible plants as opposed to the poisonous ones.

And sometimes, they’ll be on their own. I like to think that I’ve shown them a thing or two that will help when they find themselves treading the path solo. Maybe it’s how to start a fire, and maybe it’s how to make shelter from banana leaves. Maybe it’s something smaller like the best tree to sit under on a warm day. Whatever it is, I’m proud to have taken the journey with another stellar group of students this semester. Now to make my way back to the beginning to meet my next bunch.

It takes some time to navigate back to that starting place. You’ll get back faster on your own, but it won’t be as exhilarating. And you walk with the constant awareness that the landscape always shifts; the next time you take a group through there will be new challenges, new pitfalls, and new adventures to face together.

Next semester is going to be a very different beast from this semester. I won’t be teaching acting (that I know of… yet…), but I will definitely be TAing at least one class. I have another class on the “maybe” pile (still waiting to hear back about it), and there’s a pretty fair chance that I’ll be teaching at least one stage combat course. I’ll likely also be leading another Shakespeare discussion group (but again, this isn’t a sure things yet).

There’s nothing quite like the life of an adjunct to teach you to treasure what you’ve got when you’ve got it, because you never quite know when and where you’ll find it again.

In any case, I’ve still got a pile of grading to do. I guess that’s the other “bitter” in my “sweet”: paperwork and red tape are an ever-present force in academia.

Good luck with your finals, everyone (whether you’re taking them or giving them)!

A Pensive Moment

You ever have one of those moments where you find yourself doing something and, unheeded, your brain slams you to some point in your distant past when you were doing something absolutely, completely different and all you can think is “well dang, I never thought I’d be doing this”?

It’s been happening a lot to me recently.  I think this is mostly due to teaching my acting class.

This semester is the first time that I’ve had a classroom all to myself; not team-taught, not taught with supervision, not teaching off of someone else’s syllabus.  I make the rules, I enforce them, I create the lessons, and I have complete control over what goes on in my classroom during class.

Since it’s a rudimentary acting class, it requires me to go back to the fundamentals of my

Never thought I'd be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

Never thought I’d be on a plan to an academic conference about Shakespeare while reading his plays through the lens of a girl desperately hoping to pass her orals and become a Doctoral Candidate

own training which, essentially, requires time travel.  I think back to the person I was when I was doing these exercises, when I was turning in these kinds of assignments, when I was the wide-eyed optimistic student.  And thinking back upon that, I simply can’t escape the fact that I never could have planned things this way.

I never thought I’d be an acting teacher and certainly not within a university setting.  I never seriously thought I’d be getting a PhD (though the notion had crossed my mind, it wasn’t as something tangible or relevant until very recently).  And I certainly never thought that the academic world which is now my embroiled lifestyle could be a valid and sustaining life choice (though I guess, with the job market being what it is, we could debate the usage of the term “sustaining”).

It’s funny because it all seems so obvious.  My specific background lends itself really well to this kind of vocation.  That being said, there were a series of choices which seem to have logically set my feet on the path I now travel (and, if you really want to think of it this way, couldn’t have landed me anywhere else).  The question I keep coming back to is “well, if you didn’t think you’d be doing this, what did you think you’d be doing?”

The real answer is that I had no idea.  I knew I wanted theatre to be a deep part of my lifestyle.  I knew that certain works touched and moved me in a way that others did not.  I knew that I had enough and diverse background knowledge that I wouldn’t be happy being limited to a single middle-powered role in a top-down industry (theatre is totally a top-down industry).  I knew that I wanted to be an educator of some kind, but what kind was completely beyond my ability to understand.

I keep wondering what my students must think of the exercises that we’re doing.  I remember doing most of them myself, but (of course) I pointedly ignored the urgings of my teachers to keep the kinds of journals that I’m forcing my students to (by way of a graded assignment; see how tricksy I am?).  These days, I really wish that I had the kinds of resources that I am asking my students to develop for themselves.  There are other

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that'd land me here.

Summer 2007 at Shakespeare and Company; never thought that’d land me here.

reasons to keep track of things this way, but I will admit to the romantic hope that someday one of them finds herself in the situation I’m in: completely unwittingly winding up in my shoes and fervently hoping that something from her past can reach across the years to give her some guidance.

I think back to my teachers and find that I don’t think I appreciated them the way I should have.  Then again, I’m not sure I could have appreciated them this way.  I don’t think I could have understood the sheer amount of effort that went into doing what they do until this moment, when I was called upon to do it in turn.  And at the risk of sounding overly romantic, it’s kind of comforting to take my place in this cycle.  Even if, for just a short time, I can contribute to the turning of the wheel, it’s nice to know that my teachers’ teachings didn’t die with me.  Passing on the information is a real joy and, even on my bad days, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

…Yes, even when I’m facing down a mountain of grading.  Which, by the way, is another thing I never considered until I became a university educator.  Assignments are as much (if not more) work for the instructor as they are for the student.  In case you were wondering why the instructor can’t party until the fat transcript prints.

Some random mid-week thoughts

With Twelfth Night behind me, I’ve dived head first into an insane-o week.

The midterms for the course I’m TAing have come due and are in the process of being graded.  This process is otherwise known as “Operation: dig yourself out of the avalanche of papers that just fell on you”.  I’m making pretty good progress (and, without saying horribly much about it, the class is turning out some impressive work – good job, team!).

All of the projects which I had pushed off until after the show are suddenly looming before

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning.  I love roses!

Plus side to having just completed a show: I get to wake up to this every morning. I love roses!

me like the chimeras and dragons they are.  This semester’s big projects consist of one paper (due ASAP), one paper (due in May), one more lecture for my TAship (in two weeks), my German qual exam (mid April), a conference paper that’s written but has yet to be conferencified (beginning of April), and a class presentation (end of April).  Basically I’ve got a series of staggered deadlines for big projects that are all screaming at me simultaneously.

Luckily, next week is Spring break.  If I can make it to next week, I can have the entire week to not be on campus and sit and work in my pajamas all day every day.

This doesn’t sound healthy.

…or it sounds extremely healthy.

One of the two, I’m not sure which.

I just finished translating Grimm’s Aschenputtel (Cinderella) yesterday which means I need to start in on a new piece.  I try to spend an hour or so every day with my German.  I’m thinking of going back to the German Goethe articles I had the library pull for me.  I should also probably return to my grammar book.  But translating fairy tales is so much more fun than learning grammar!

I have spent the last week steeping in Molière.  I’m writing a seminar paper on him and there are a LOT of plays to get through.  My professor loaned me some books so I’ve been trying to (with a moderate degree of success GO ME!) to get through them in a week so I can return them to her.  This means over-saturation in French witticism.  I’m continually surprised (to the point that it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore) about how much more pleasant it is to research something that’s enjoyable to read than to research something you couldn’t give a damn about (or is just torturous to get through).  Though he many not be my man Will, Monsieur Molière is slippery, witty, and wonderful and I’m having fun getting to know him.  I’d be grateful if you didn’t disclose this to Herr Shakespeare; he’s a jealous mistress (don’t believe me?  Read the sonnets).

I’ve had some wonderful professional opportunities fall onto my plate this week (details to follow; I don’t want to give too much away before things are finalized).  Suffice to say you may want to leave the evening of April 23 available (Shakespeare’s birthday) if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Portsmouth, NH.

And on that note, I should return to the mountain to defeat the midterm dragons.  They’re becoming rather insistent and I’d rather not walk away smelling of scorched hair.

>Happy Thursday


In the world-weary words of everyone’s favorite homosexual Disney villain; “Life’s not fair, isn’t it?” (Scar, by the way folks.  Scar.  The Lion King.  Yea, I know, figuring he was gay was a mind-blowing event for me, too).
I very frequently describe my workload as an ocean.  It is vast, uncountable, uncontainable, and the best I can ever hope to do is tread water within it.  At a certain point in the semester, this treading water becomes strategic drowning.  Where can I take a break?  How long can I hold my breath?  Where do I really need to break the surface, how much is that going to take out of me, and in the long run will the effort to do so equal the greatest rate of return?
Generally, this feeling begins right around midterms time.  If I’m lucky, I can keep it at bay until I begin research for my finals.
Well I’m two weeks out from midterm number one and already I’m gasping for air.  I blame the common reading exam.  You see, usually when my work is done for the week I have a few hours with which to relax with the knowledge that I have nothing to do (unless I want to be an over-achiever and start on next week’s reading).  With the exam, however, all that time is diverted into (gasp) more reading.  It never ends.  As soon as I think I’ve caught a break, another wave comes by and shoves me right back under the water.
So I’m tired.  And stressed.  And my brain feels like oatmeal (maybe with little chunks of bananas because there are still a few bits that haven’t liquefied yet).  I’ve started getting the stress-headaches and all the wonderful things that erupt from them (tired eyes… migraines with aura are AWESOME let me tell you), my traps feel like someone stuck a fist in them and clenched and has refused to let go, and of course there is the ever-lurking threat of becoming sick yet again.
With that in mind, I’m having trouble being coherent this week.  Here’s a list of random stuff that has crossed my desk recently.
1)    I’m reading Northanger Abbey for aforementioned Best Professor Ever’s Gothic class.  I love this book.  I LOVE this book.  Have I mentioned how much I love this book?  I wrote a paper about it for my Austen class last semester which then became my PhD writing sample and I’m hoping to whip it into publication shape as soon as I have a moment to breathe.  I have to say despite everything reading this book feels like coming home again.  Shhhh.  Don’t tell Will I said that, he may be jealous.
2)    I’m giving a talk Saturday at the inaugural Rutgers Newark MA Consortium.  I haven’t looked at the paper I’m giving in months.  I haven’t looked at the notes on the paper I’m giving in months.  Luckily, I have a presentation written up I just have to brush the dust off of it and remember my Nietzsche.  Easier said than done I think.  Hey, by the way, come to the Rutgers Newark MA Consortium on Saturday!
3)    In a month, I will be past the roughest spot of this semester.  I’m torn on whether this is an awesome thing or a horrible one.  According to, Columbia’s decision letters usually come out the first week in March (or at least they do for my program).  My first midterm is due 3/9 (I will be begging an extension though so that I have Spring Break to work on it).  Spring break is 3/12-3/20.  MA exam is 3/21 and 3/22.  After that, I’m not gonna say it’s all smooth sailing, but at least I can ignore the extra reading that keeps weighing me down like a big regency dress on a chick who was forced to walk the pirate plank into some exotic gulf in Bermuda. 
4)    I am not where I want to be with my short story that I’m writing for my writing group.  I have a draft.  I want to have several drafts.  Pens down on this story is in three days.  Several drafts is so not going to happen.
5)    First stack of grading came to me yesterday.  I both adore and loathe the first stack of grading.  I am always eager to jump back in with my red pen in hand and learn them undergrads good.  On the other hand, putting a grade on the first assignment innately limits the potential of the students.  Before that first grade, they are all A students.  As soon as I mark this paper, lines are drawn as to the quality of the class and the work which should be expected from them.  This point of view may grant me, the grader, a little too much agency in what is really a problem precipitated by them, the students, but I can’t help but see things this way.  I want them to do well.  I don’t want anyone to do poorly; there’s no reason for them to do poorly.  The assignments aren’t mind-bending hard, we have resources for students who aren’t stellar writers to get help, and it’s not like they didn’t have warning about the workload for the course.  With proper time management skills and resource utilization, there is absolutely no reason why these students should do poorly in the class.  And still, I can nearly guarantee, at least a third of these papers will exhibit piss-poor quality (possibly poor enough to fail).  Sigh.
6)    I would very much like a massage, an honest-to-god day off, a good-looking man to come feed me chocolate-covered strawberries, and a pony.  Is that so much to ask?

>The Night Before Christmas


Twas the night before Christmas, what a pain in my ass…
Because I was still grading for my undergrad class.
My red pen was whirring, my comments were shrewd,
(to visiting relatives I might have seemed rude).
My family feted, cooked, drank and made merry,
While I, in my room, grew increasingly wary.
My deadline approached to submit grades I’d given,
I realized how many I’d already scriven.
Not nearly enough (if I worked at this pace),
To finish, on university-time, the great race.
My head in my hands as a fresh migraine bloomed,
This was it, the end, my career was doomed.
When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.
I flung open the curtains and realized right quick,
There he was, big red himself, old saint Nick.
He threw back his head with a laugh jolly bright,
His sleigh filled with presents a marvelous sight.
He looked to his reindeer, then gave me a wink,
(it wasn’t as creepy as you might think).
He smiled and started to leave on his sleigh,
But I opened the window and shouted “Wait, hey!
It’s Christmas!  I’m supposed to be opening gifts!
Not reading some kids’ misinterpreting of Swift!
My family’s singing Christmas tunes in good cheer,
While I’m miserably wading through papers, stuck here!
Is it my fault my final was scheduled late?
That the school cursed me to this gloomy yule fate?
Should I suffer since my students can’t write
On a deadline without putting up fights?
Where’s my Christmas spirit?  Can’t I have some fun?
Does a Professor’s life mean misery in the long-run?
Is Christmas a fiction, shiningly wrought?
A great lie from our parents we’ve always been taught?
Sure, you can go round the whole world in one night,
But you can’t fix my problems, or help solve my plight.
Leave presents, go on, things to open tomorrow,
But I’ll still be here wrapped in my own sorrow.”
Santa was struck dumb, didn’t know what to say
(I mean, I did kinda plan it that way)
He paused and he tried to collect what he thought,
But apparently couldn’t find words that he sought.
He took up his reigns and towards me he sped,
And when he spoke, these are the words that he said:
“All graders, professors and their TAs,
Adjuncts and lecturers, still in a daze,
Semester not over, you can’t quite unnerve it,
Take a Christmas break, for god’s sake, you deserve it!”
He wiggled his nose and I looked to my grading,
And realized the stack of “to do” papers was fading!
Santa had fixed it, he’d graded them all!
It was all I could do not to break down and bawl.
I looked out to thank him, but I was too slow,
He had already taken off into new-falling snow.
But I heard him exclaim, as he drove out of sight,
“Merry Christmas to all!  Put your pens down tonight!”

>Grading; A Tragi-Comedy in Five Acts


All this happened…. More or less.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Dramatis Personae
Danielle: A lowly (but not inexperienced) grader who writes a fascinating blog that you should really read…. Otherwise known as: yours truly.
Lisa: A recently-minted MA in English who teaches her own class this semester, but has been part of the “academic musketeers” since before her graduation last May.  A frequent sanity-checker on all things academy-related, and someone who graded with Danielle last semester.
Brian: The third musketeer and a colleague of Danielle’s.  Was asked to take Lisa’s place as grader when Lisa graduated and started teaching her own classes.
John: The professor they all grade/graded for.
Act One

Curtain up on a one-bedroom apartment that hasn’t been cleaned in far too long.  Danielle sits glumly in front of her computer with a stack of completed grading by her left hand.  She looks to the stack, looks to the computer’s screen where she has pulled up a spreadsheet of the grades she gave, then sighs.  Despite her best efforts, there is simply nothing she can do about the fact that the papers are really and truly sub-par.  She crunches some numbers and realizes that her chunk of the class, as of now, has a 76% pass rate on this paper.  She thumbs back through the papers listlessly, wondering if there’s any way she can bump a few Ds to Cs.  She wonders about the ethics of such a decision; simply because the class is doing poorly does not mean that she should lower her standards, right?  And it’s not like her standards were so high to begin with… all she needed from a paper to pass it was some sign that the student had an argument, any argument, just something to say about a work read in class.
She asks a good friend who happens to be a high-school teacher what his standard pass rate is.  He tells her 95%.  She feels even worse.  She mentions that the students do have the opportunity to re-write for a better grade.  He says that in that case, 76% is probably just fine.  She feels the need to defend John who she knows for a fact is an amazing professor since he has been her professor on occasion in addition to being her boss.  It’s not his fault that his class can’t write papers.  It’s the… high-school teacher… right… she feels awkward about this argument and ceases to have it.
She steels her reserve and stuffs the finished pile into its manila inter-office envelope to drop in John’s box after she attaches the typed commentaries to the individual papers.
Act Two

Danielle enters the English Department common room with manila envelope of graded papers in one hand and stack of typed commentaries in the other.  She puts both of these down on the long table at which Lisa is already sitting grading her own stack of papers.
Lisa: Hey.
Danielle: Hey.
Lisa: How you doing?
Danielle: Okay…. I can’t shake this feeling though…
Lisa: What’s wrong?
Danielle: This stack of papers was awful.  Well and truly awful.  Worse than we had last semester.  And… I graded them accordingly, but I can’t help but wonder if I was a bit heavy-handed.  My pass rate was 76%.
Lisa: I mean, you may have been.  Even John says that you’re a tougher grader than Brian.  The comments you two give are probably the same, but the letter grade is different… so John admits to swapping the stack around so that you and Brian aren’t always grading the same students’ papers and it all averages out.
Danielle: That’s good, I guess, but I still don’t feel great about it…
Lisa: Well what grades did you give out?
Danielle: A couple Ds… one C minus… the passing grades were mostly B minuses.  I did give out two A’s though.
Lisa: C minus isn’t a failing grade.
Danielle: Really?
Lisa: Yea, since John can’t technically put a C minus in the grading box, he’ll bump it up to a C and the paper will pass.
Danielle: well that makes me feel better I guess, that means my pass rate’s over 80%…
Lisa: Did you give any Fs?
Danielle: No.
Lisa: In that case, you’re fine.  Let’s go get beer.
Act Three

Lisa and Danielle are imbibing in beer and wings at the local college dive bar.  Brian rushes in late, clearly upset, clearly out of breathe.
Brian: You guys would not believe the morning I have had.
Lisa: Order a beer and tell us…
Brian: I have seen and done a lot of things in my time… but today, today was a first.  I nearly got into a fistfight on the highway.
Danielle: How is that possible?
Brian: Apparently some guy thought I cut him off so he drove right in front of me, slammed on his breaks to force me into the shoulder, and got out of his car screaming that he was gonna kick my ass.  But he wasn’t.  Because if someone screams about it, they’re not going to do it and I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours, how was your stack of papers?
Danielle: Uhm… should you nap or something?
Brian: No, I had a five-hour energy before leaving the house.
Danielle: So… mine were
Brian: AWFUL?  No really, AWFUL?
Danielle: Yea… yours too, huh?
Brian: Yea, I gave out five Ds, but you’re a tougher grader than I am so I was wondering how many you failed…
Danielle: Breathes a sigh of relief Actually, about the same. 
Brian: How many As did you give?
Danielle: Two solid As and one A minus.
Brian: I hate to say this, but I have no real As and the ones I did give out I only gave because they were that much better than the rest in the stack…
Lisa: I love my class.  I seriously feel like I have the best students in this school.  None of the papers I got were like the ones we got from John’s kids last semester, and the ones that were bad came from the good students who ran out of time or had friends who committed suicide or something…
Brian and Danielle glare at Lisa for a while.
Act Four

Danielle pokes her head into John’s office while he is on a break between classes.
Danielle: John?
John: Oh, hey, thanks for the papers.
Danielle: Yea, no problem.  You take a look at my PhD writing sample yet?
John: Yes.  It’s great.  I have copious commentary.  My cat messed up my filing system and I completely forgot to bring it to you today.
Danielle: I’m not even going to ask.  Hey, did you also have a look at the grades I gave out?
John: Yes, looks fine to me.  You’re a tougher grader than Brian, so I expected that.
Danielle: I just felt so bad doing it…
John: Sometimes the best you can do is offer the most constructive commentary you can give.  You can’t just pass them because they turned in something that could have been written by monkeys at typewriters.  Here, have another stack of grading.
Act Five

Danielle sits in her room once more tapping a pencil against her desk.  She is trying to blog about her week and realizes that she doesn’t know what the proper stylistic form is for the letter representation of a grade in a sentence.  A or “A”?  And how do you make it plural?  She blogs anyway and hopes that she guessed correctly.


>Grand Theft Caught-o


Since my midterms are happily turned in, I know it’s time to brace for the inevitable: grading aforementioned Best Professor in the World’s undergrad midterms.
You may or may not recall my previous rant about this class’ first turned-in assignment.  For the record, this is the same class, just a bit further into the semester and two assignments the wiser.
The midterm is an open-ended paper of at least 1,500 words.  The only requirements are that it be about some work discussed in class (at this point, the major works they’ve read are Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, The Country Wife, and (my favorite) Gulliver’s Travels), and that it be an argumentative/analytic paper rather than an evaluative paper.  Essentially, the students’ task boils down to this: chose a work discussed in class, make an argument about it, and support that argument with textual analysis for about six double-spaced type-written pages.
I am not so far from my undergrad days that I don’t remember doing this.  The first time a professor asked me to write a paper without some kind of prompt, I panicked.  “But… how am I going to know if I’m doing the right thing?  How am I sure that it’s correct?  I can’t tell how to get an A without you showing me what to write about!”  The ownership of thought is a daunting possibility.  Suddenly, and without warning, an entire world of criticism opens before the student.  It’s a world with paths, but no roads.  A world with tracks, but few trails.  A world where you can easily get distracted and lost and wander off into somewhere you’ve never been and didn’t intend to go without your “help me I’m lost” whistle or flashlight and it’s getting dark and who knows when the ranger will be by to rescue you?
So I sympathize with the plight of the undergrad.  Especially the undergrad who isn’t necessarily an English major and took this class to fulfill some gen ed requirement.
The papers, on the whole, aren’t stellar but they’re mostly passable.  One or two are even excellent.  What really bothers me is my reaction to these excellent ones.
Imagine this scene, if you will.  You’re stretched out on your floor with a nice French press full of tea and all your grading documentation in front of you.  You’ve been at this for an hour and a half now.  You average about a paper every half hour, but can really only do about two hours at a clip without pausing to recollect your thoughts.  You’re coming to the end of your allotted pre-brain-bleed time.  The papers you have read, so far, are barely intelligible.  There is a thread of genius within them, but sometimes it is so far diluted that it’s hard to say whether it’s accidental or purposeful.  You’re tired.  Your eyes are starting to bleed.  And you come upon a paper.  It shows… promise.  It is miraculously coherent, well-formulated, logically sound, and in short does everything this paper should do.
What, dear reader, is your reaction?
….I’m sad to say that mine is to google strategic sentences in the paper to make sure that the student didn’t kife it. 
At first, this seemed totally natural.  Something stands out, it’s unusual, double-check it.  Catching plagiarism is part of my job, and the only way to catch plagiarism is to cross-check things which seem… out of place.  But what does it say about me that every solid, well-written paper so far has seemed out of place?  Is this due diligence or paranoia?  Should I be concerned about students’ practices, or my own attitudes?
On the one hand, such suspicion may, in fact, catch a cheater someday.  And without it, there is no way that cheater would be caught.  On the other, am I somehow implicitly violating a trust this student has in his reader?  Even though he has never met me, even though he may not even be aware that there is a grader reviewing his work rather than the Professor, is there some compact between us that I, as a more experienced academe, will take him at his word?  Do I have a responsibility to him to be accepting of his excellent work, or do I have a responsibility to the academy to root out those who steal?  To google or not to google, that is the question.
I think that part of what has me so far on edge is how easy it would be to steal a paper for this open-ended assignment.  When a student responds to an essay prompt, he has to at least be clever about his theft.  He has to mask it in the disguise of pertinence and relevance.  Here, all he has to do is look up these well-known works of literature online and copy and paste at his whim.  No tact involved.  Clean, smooth, simple.
A second piece of what is going on here is a deeply-rooted attitude instilled in me by my own undergraduate institution.  At NYU, the first day of every class the professor would pass out a syllabus, do a roll call, and go over course expectations.  There would, inevitably, be a twenty-minute diatribe about plagiarism.  What constitutes plagiarism, how plagiarism will ALWAYS be detected and (most importantly) how plagiarism will always be punished.  NYU has (or at least had) a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism.  If they catch you, you get the boot.  And my professors were very serious about this rule.
In a way, it was like a reign of terror.  Rather than instilling in us a sense of ethics or morals, they filled us with utter fear and dread of consequences.  Am I alone in thinking that this is somewhat backwards?  If a student fails to cheat because he is afraid of getting caught rather than any moral qualms about cheating, it achieves the desired result but not with any real durable foundation.  Do the ends justify the means?
And now, since I have been told my entire academic life that PLAGIARISM IS EVIL AND YOU WILL ALWAYS BE CAUGHT IF YOU STEAL, am I experiencing performance anxiety?  If I fail to catch a cheater, I fail at being an efficient grader.  I have failed the system.  And this student, since he is living in the same terror that I was, will realize that it’s all a smoke screen, a vicious lie.  He won’t be smote by the hand of god if he fails to cite a source.  There won’t be a lightning bolt that comes down out of the sky leaving him a smoldering pile of ash because he nabbed his paper from the internet.  He’ll get his grade and realize that cheating pays.  And the integrity of the system will be ruined!  RUINED!  Because I failed it!  I am the weakest link, goodbye!
I guess what it really comes down to is that the way I was raised is utterly wrong.  The reign of terror must end.  There has to be a better way of dealing with cheaters than fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  Most importantly, fear does not teach values, only consequences.  Consequences do not make better people out of our students, only more obedient parrot-talking drones.

>Deer in the Headlights

>Do you ever get to a certain point where you have so much on your plate that you are frozen?  So much to do, limited time in which to do it, and yet the thought of the entire situation stresses you out so much that you just can’t do anything?  Like a deer in the headlights, frozen where you stand, unable to move, unable to think, simply able to worry about all the things that you aren’t doing because you’re expending your mental energy not doing them.

Yea, I hit that point tonight.
It’s not that anything in my life right now is bad or unexciting, it is just that there is so bloody much of it.  It’s spilling over and making me remiss in my blogging.  I am working on so much at once that my mind is too scattered to put together a coherent though much less a coherent blog post.
As a result, I’m writing a list.  I find that list-making helps me get my thoughts together, and, since I haven’t come up with much else to blog about, you’re going to get to read my list.  Here is a list of everything that I need to accomplish this month in the order in which these things occur to me.  Enjoy.
1)    1) Finish the Austen midterm.  This is due October 31st by 9PM, though my professor is merciful and may give me an extension.  It will likely wind up being a 20 page paper rather than a 10 page paper as I am currently 6 pages in and not nearly halfway through everything I want to say.  Hopefully I can have a working draft cranked out by the end of the week so I can start muddling through the editing process.  There will be more blogging on my drafting process, complete with pictures, just not tonight.
2)     2)  Ensure actors don’t stab each other during Magic Time this weekend.  This is going fairly well mostly due to the fact that said actors worked their butts off while I was gone over the weekend after I put the fear of god into them via text message.  Fight looks pretty solid as of tonight, which is a good thing as tomorrow is their final dress.  Still a few tweaks, but those are easy.  Considering that as I was leaving my driveway on Friday there was frantic texting between me and the director concerning the integrity of the fight and the actors’ ability to perform it properly, this is VERY good.  Director thought it might need cuts due to actor misperformance, I assured director that this was the proper flow of things and that after working it until their fingers bled muscle memory would kick in and they’d look great.  Guess who was right?  All I can say is:  phew.
3)     3) Keep up on class reading.  Reading for class is like treading water in the ocean: just when you’re on top of the game, a wave comes by to bury you again.  It never ends.  After a year of this, I thought I was used to the break-neck pace of Graduate English programs and everything that came with them.  What I learned this semester is “used to it” does not mean “unphased by it”.  I’m no longer a fresh-faced newb, but all that means is that I’m more jaded and less likely to let things escape through the cracks of composure.  Can’t let those who are actually fresh-faced newbs know how hard it still is even after practice.
4)      4) PhD aps.  Oh god PhD aps.  My personal statement is a wreck and THAT needs fixing pronto.  I hate writing personal statements.  It’s the net that’s supposed to catch everything the rest of the application let fall.  It’s your last ditch effort to impress the program.  It’s the piece of the ap that programs value the highest.  It’s a boatload of pressure.  “Say something smart and witty that will make us like you and simultaneously explain your previous experience, training and academic work as well as this writing sample… in two pages or less”.  Can someone just…. Do this for me?  It’s not that I don’t like to talk about myself, I’m arrogant enough that the premise of this appeals to my need for self-validation, but this is way too much.  What if they don’t like my tone?  What if I accidentally offend them? What if I forget to say something I really should have said?   What if they just hate people named “Danielle”? 
5)      5) Get the conference paper ready to go.  I don’t even want to talk about this. 
6)      6) Prep for cert at the studio.  I’m up for a raise and a boost in ballroom-dancerly-power in the form of a certification.  This happens in early November and involves a three hour test with fifty seven million dance moves from nine different dances (both lead and follow) as well as technical questions about alignment, footwork, and teaching techniques.  I love to dance, for the most part my body knows how to do it, but being asked questions about the process is intimidating.  Memorizing alignments sucks, thinking about footwork makes my head hurt, and my teaching techniques are probably nothing like what the text book tells me to do.  In short: stressful.  It’s like the Spanish Inquisition of Ballroom…. Without the comfy chair.
7)      7) In-Class presentations.  In my absolutely astounding amount of foresight, I managed to sign up for two out of three of my semesterly-required-in-class-presentations during the window of time in which I have the most other things going on.  I’m giving one Wednesday and one next Tuesday.  Next semester, I’m checking my damned calendar before I sign up for these things.  I am less concerned about the Wednesday presentation as it’s on a secondary source article.  The presentation next Tuesday is on Coleridge and involves outside research and crazy prep.  I love Coleridge, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I know more about him than Joe-literati-shmoe.  Better learn fast.  All I can say is I dug my own grave on this one.
8)      8) Due in for another stack of grading.  I’m hoping they’re as epic as the last papers… though perhaps with a little more forethought put into them.  This may just be my comic relief/escape for a while… don’t have time to see a funny de-stressing movie?  Grade some undergrad papers.  It’s kinda the same thing….. really, have I stooped this low?
9)     9)  Finals.  Everyone keeps asking about final paper topics; students, professors, my mom….  I wish I could plug my ears and sing loudly and tunelessly every time the subject is brought up.  I can’t think about finals until my midterms are done, it’s a Cosmic Truth.  Besides which, I simply have no idea.  None.  No clue.  Dunno.  Come back later, brain busy, can’t work it out now.
….I need someone to buy me a nice bottle of wine and give me a backrub.  Or maybe a beer and a hug.

>Attendance is Mandatory


So here’s one for you.
Why is it that society expects us to cover the butts of those who opt for mediocrity?
I’m going to preface the rest of this with a disclaimer: I’m about to say something that may not be very popular.  It may make me sound like a righteous jerk.  For that, I only have one defense.  Everyone has something that turns them surly, I’m just a little more vocal about my surliness than most of the population.
My Science Fiction professor has been having some health problems recently and was required to go in for an operation.  I’m not certain of any details beyond this about his personal health, but I do know that he is loathe to cancel class.  Unfortunately, due to operation scheduling, he was forced to miss a class session.  He requested that we do the reading and come in to discuss without him anyway.
To me, this is a perfectly reasonable request of a graduate-level course.  We should be far enough along in our careers that we, as a collective, can hold a critical conversation about a series of assigned texts.  Perhaps sustaining this conversation for the full three-hour class window is a little much, but certainly we can talk for at least long enough to make meeting and discussing a fruitful endeavor.
I know that not everyone will agree with me.  Some see the professor’s inability to attend class as a chance to catch up on their other readings, take a much-needed break, or start a weeknight evening of partying a little early.  Fine.  That’s their decision and, as adults, they are entitled to make it.
I knew that not everyone would come to class.  I knew that most people would opt not to come to class.  I did my reading and showed anyway.  There were a few other people there, enough that we could speak but certainly not even half of the class collective.
Here’s what really got me: we talked about sending around a sign-in sheet.  Then we joked about taking a picture of the assembly and e-mailing it to the professor as a “get well soon we miss you” sort of deal.  Both these suggestions were first laughed off.  When re-approached seriously, the sign-in sheet was decided against on the account that it would “get people in trouble”.
….How old are we?  Do we do the work because there’s a professor breathing down our necks?  Do we read and come to class solely for a grade and a pat on the bum at the end of the semester with a “good show” from the person running the class?  I thought the point was that we were here to learn because we loved to learn…. I thought that was why we came to graduate school.
Now I’m not saying that I’m a cut-throat snarling academic harpy.  Certainly when I need to be I exhibit those tendencies, and I can’t say I don’t enjoy the role at times.  But I do believe that people who chose not to engage in a course to the degree demanded by the professor deserve what they get.  It’s not my job to cover their bums.  I don’t feel obligated to make excuses for their mediocrity.  And I wouldn’t blame them for doing the same if the roles were reversed.  Just because we sit next to each other in class does not make us friends, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push each other to be the best we could possibly become.  Granted, if we were friends I may feel differently about the attendance sheet, but that’s a factor beyond the scope of this rant.
There is a certain degree of fellowship implicit in situational companionship.  Being shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines of literary criticism does give us a shared experience.  Sometimes, those shared experiences create bonds.  I’ve certainly made friends in Graduate School.  However, those friends I made were not made solely based on our classroom interactions.  We talk before class, during breaks, at the pub between classes, go out on weekends sometimes, there’s time and effort that goes into a friendship.  This assumption that since we are in the same class we are united against the common enemy of bad grades bewilders me.  Yes, we can take on intellectualism together, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to abet your efforts at cheating the system.  I will haply slay the demons of textual criticism with you, but I will not help you steal from the General’s tent.
I work hard, and I work a lot.  I have a lot on my plate.  If I can make time for the readings and for coming to class, so can you.  Any discrepancies in your attendance is between you and the professor and does not involve me.  Work it out between yourselves.  If you ask nicely (and if I like you), I’ll let you borrow my notes for the day and pick up the readings for you, but I will not discredit myself to cover for the fact that you couldn’t be bothered to come to class.
I didn’t push the issue.  We didn’t send around a sign-in sheet.  I think, despite that, my colleagues may now see a glint of textual tigress behind my eyes.  Still up for debate whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.  I’m hoping it means that they’ll try to take me down like a pack of wolves on a buffalo the next time I have some crack-pot theory about Bakhtinian narratives.  Except this buffalo has claws and breathes fire…

>Making the Grade


As Henry Higgens laments in his infamous parody of Shaw’s still-known-but-not-so-infamous prelude to Pygmalion: “why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”.  I suppose in my case “why can’t Americans teach their children how to write?” is more to the point, but it messes with the rhythms and intonation enough that it’s not nearly as catchy.
Job number one (though depending on the day, any of the three jobs could be “job number one”) is as a grader for aforementioned Best Professor in the World (who, for the sake of propriety in case a member of the class should stumble upon these writings, will remain unnamed in this post… though a little detective work will lift my thin veil of professionalism and of course you could always just ask me).  The first stack of grading for this year is in and folks, it’s a doozy.
The class is an eighty-person undergrad lecture on Eighteenth-century British lit.  It’s a three hundred level course which means that it’s pretty much English majors only.  I must admit that I’m not entirely familiar with Rutgers’ prerequisite system, but I should imagine that (in theory) anyone could really take the class given enough administrative red-tape-cutting.  For the sake of demographics, it’s a fair assumption to say that these individuals are in their second or third year of college and, if not majors, at least have a marked interest in the subject matter.
The good: I have one paper in the batch (so far, I’m about three quarters of the way through them) that’s a solid “A”.  This kid knows what he’s doing, he’s got a great argument, even though the assignment isn’t a heavily weighted one in terms of their final grade he obviously put some thought and time into it.  Getting a paper like this, especially after having graded most of his peers’ papers, is like breathing fresh air after being stuck in a Gollumesque cave for ten years.  I wanted to find the boy, give him a great big hug and say “thank you for taking this seriously and making my time worthwhile.”  I truly hope he goes far in academia.
The bad: Talk about a bell curve, I would say the majority of these papers are barely passable.  It is clear to me that the students threw them together in an evening without even giving them a second read-through.  Nothing makes me twitch more than a student who obviously pounded something out and didn’t even bother to go over it again.  My time is valuable.  Despite loving this grading gig, it makes me feel used and abused when students pass in perfunctory work (as a note, I think I’ve used the word “perfunctory” in the end notes for these things more times than I can really count).  Moreover, it makes me feel as though the students are disrespecting their Professor, a man who I have infinite degrees of respect and adoration for.  Sure, my time is valuable, but his is even more so.  He’s a learned man, publishes all fricken time, always has projects coming out of his ears, I mean this guy makes me look like a slacker.  In addition, he’s an amazing professor.  He knows his stuff, he knows how to get along with students, and he knows how to teach.  The students disrespecting this man makes me want to wander into the classroom and lay the holy smack-down touting a Norton Anthology of British Literature in one hand and an unabridged OED in the other (not that I could really carry such a thing, but the thought of using it as a weapon makes me happy).  Seriously kids.  Get it together.  If you can’t learn from this man, you can’t learn from anyone.
The ugly: While I haven’t run into any purposeful plagiarism yet (usually we’re lax about quotation form for the first few assignments of the semester, so while technically quoting improperly is considered plagiarism we draw the students’ attention to it and let it slide for now), I do have at least two kids who did a copy and paste job.  They didn’t try to pass the work off as their own (I mean, when it’s the OED you’d have to be a world class idiot to try), but they didn’t put any of their own work into the paper.  I hate failing people, and I know aforementioned professor doesn’t feel any better about it than I do.  For both of our sakes, just put an hour into this assignment and you will pass.  You won’t do well as some of your peers, but at least you won’t hang guiltily on our consciences.
Honestly, the single thing that students can do to improve their English grades is simply re-reading their papers before turning them in.  Just give them a once-over.  I promise you will catch something that you didn’t see before, and that something is one less thing a grader will notice to mark you down on.  I would say, given my experience as a grader and writing tutor, that the average student paper will go up by at least half a letter grade if given nothing more than a second glance before being turned in.  Most of the problems that I notice in prose fall into one of three categories: typos, redundancy, and clarity.  Typos are sometimes hard to catch, but I see many more blatant typos than subtle ones.  Homonym use is only rarely an issue for students at this level, and when it is generally said student is aware of the issue.  Fixing redundancy is a matter of reading and saying “oh look, I already said that”.  That’s it.  Sometimes redundancy an effort on the student’s part to add length to a paper with a page or word minimum, but in that case the student is better off not repeating himself anyway.  It may be half a page short, but at least the quality will go up significantly.  Clarity is also an easily fixed issue.  Half the time when typing something the fingers work faster than the mind can.  As a result, students will begin one sentence and end it entirely differently, leave out words, etc.  Fixable.  Easily fixable.
What kills me is that this doesn’t take any writer’s know-how to do.  All it takes is a little effort and diligence.  I understand that the average college student can be under a great deal of pressure from a great deal of angles, but that understanding only goes so far.  With three jobs, full-time school, a blog, a novel project and a social life, I still find a way to re-read my work.  They can’t tell me they don’t have ten minutes to give a two-page double-spaced assignment a once over.
In any case, I’m sitting here staring glumly at several failing papers and even more cursory jobs which will earn a C or C minus.  I’m hoping that my notes on them will prove useful, but the realist in me says that the students will do what I did when I was in undergrad: ignore the notes, flip the paper to the last page, and look for the circled grade then throw the paper away without a second glance.  If nothing else, the grading process has at least taught me to appreciate the value of a good end note.
I wish I could just shake these kids.  I wish that would make a difference.  I know they are smarter than this even without having met them.  I guess all I can hope for is an overall improvement over the course of the semester, but I won’t hold my breathe.