Countdown to Freedom: 11/21/2012

Eleven more days to go.

In about four and a half hours, it’ll be ten more days. Right this instant, at four in the morning, we have six more 102 class meetings and five more 101 meetings. So that’s two more weeks, both spent treading water while we try to shovel the horrible 2500-word Eng. 102 position paper off our respective desks. The 101s have an argument paper left to do.

That makes for 52,500 words of drivel to be read, commented upon, and assessed in the next two weeks. BARF!

And that doesn’t count the query, interview, and two articles coming in from the magazine-article writing students. Fortunately, only about a half-dozen of those students survive.

One of them turned in a copy-and-paste job for her how-two piece. Score: –10.

Ten points off for not bothering to even so much as type her own name, contact information, target publication, and word count into a heading. One hundred points off for copying an entire web page and pasting it into a Word document.

I can’t even tell you how tedious I find this kind of thing. As much as I hate grading students’ illiterate original efforts, to my mind turning in something that you’ve copied word-for-word is profoundly insulting. In addition to the little sh!t presuming to waste my time by expecting me to grade it, the implication that I am so stupid I’ll never notice is just infuriating.

Speaking of stupid… Frankly, I’m beginning to think that anyone who would persist at this job for more than a year or so is none too bright. When you read sites populated by adjuncts and even by full-time faculty, you see the woods are full of people complaining incessantly about the exploitive conditions under which some 80 percent of U.S. university and college faculty work. And yet, you know…those conditions exist because people put up with them.

Okay, I’m grateful that I had the skills to get something, no matter how underpaid and frustrating, to keep the wolf from the door when I was laid off my job.

But what I’ve earned really did not keep the wolf away. All it has done is delay the day when inevitably I would run out of money. I started with $28,000 of emergency savings in the bank. Fourteen grand was transferred to a brokerage account, some of it put into a Roth IRA and some into non-tax deferred investments. The remainder was used to keep me going when my adjunct income plus Social Security did not pay the bills, which was most of the time. Today about $5,500 of that remains.

It’s been three years since layoff day, and you have to allow that living on $14,000 for three years was not a bad little accomplishment. The lifestyle hasn’t been great, though. And needing to use five grand of that money to shore up the house’s defenses after the garage invasion episode, having spent two years living like an anchorite and holding down a miserable job I just loathe so as to stretch that money as long as possible, was, shall we say, discouraging.

So truly, it is a pointless effort. I would have done better to have applied for a federal job, as one woman at the Social Security Administration advised, or to have gone to work for Costco, as one of their employees suggested.

Costco employees are amazingly happy in their jobs. Adjuncts, by and large, are not. Administrators pretend to or, possibly in some cases actually do, agonize about working conditions and exploitation of adjuncts, but if anyone in college and university administration gave a damn, obviously these conditions would not prevail.

At Confessions of a Community College Dean, proprietor Dean Dad wonders rhetorically, “What would it take to give every adjunct who wants it a full-time permanent job?” This gives him an opportunity to say, in effect, it costs too much to treat employees fairly.

I said it there, and I’ll say it here: There’s a simple way to resolve this problem. Let me correct myself, though: actually, there are two ways.

First, people who think they want to teach full-time and find themselves unable to land full-time work must quit doing this. Don’t teach on an adjunct basis under any circumstances. Work is not a vocation. We are not nuns and priests. We do not serve God — far from it, obviously. Work exists to put food on the table and a roof overhead. For the individual, that is all it is good for.

If people would not put up with ill treatment, it would not happen. So, fellow adjuncts: GET A JOB.

Second, the whole issue would become moot if colleges and universities quit producing MAs and PhDs in disciplines whose teaching faculties are overrun with adjuncts. Most of these are in the humanities. If faculties in an academic discipline are largely staffed by adjuncts, that discipline obviously represents a dead end for young people who think they want academic careers.

Graduate programs in these disciplines should be shut down or cut way, way back. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that we need federal legislation to make this happen, since you can be sure universities will continue to churn out MAs and PhDs as long as they can find suckers to go into their programs. To cut their graduate programs would be to force full-time senior faculty to teach the gummy, frustrating, and endlessly annoying lower-division courses presently foisted on adjuncts and junior faculty. We need legislation to establish a nationwide limit on the number of PhDs and MAs that can be granted in, say, English literature or rhet-comp. And stick to it.

It will take time, but after about twenty years, many fewer people will be eligible to teach on the college or university level. Thus, eventually all faculty in the humanities will be full-time, because there will no longer be a surplus of qualified applicants.

Yeah, it’s nice that a job of sorts was out there to break my fall when the recession yanked a decent job out from under me. The only reason that was true, though, is that Social Security and a small savings account made it possible for me to scrabble together a living on what is nothing even remotely like a living wage. How much better off would I have been had I never gone into academia at all? The full-time job at the Great Desert University was nice while it lasted (15 years!), but it was underpaid compared to what I could have earned in public relations or, for godsake, at selling real estate.

You don’t need an academic job to be an intellectual. All you need is a library and a publishing house. I would have been better off had I gotten a real estate license or taken a job at a PR agency at the time I divorced.

Much, much better off.

Posted in Adjunct Poverty, Education in America, Plagiarism, Students | 1 Comment

What’s Wrong with Freshman Composition, and How to Fix It

My having mellowed the other day (briefly, no doubt) when the 101 students showed a flicker of intelligence led frugalscholar and Sandra J to remark that I may secretly like my students.

LOL! Well, I do: it’s not the students I dislike. In fact, if I didn’t have to read their marginally literate papers, I would happily hang out with them for an hour or two a couple of times a week.  Preferably in some venue that offers something decent to eat.

What I dislike most about teaching freshman comp is freshman comp: the futility of it, the bureaucratic stupidity of it, the wrongheadedness of the pedagogical theories behind the teaching of writing in general. Freshman comp is a waste of time for about 99 percent of the students who are made to take it. If they’ve not learned how to write competently in their native language by the time they reach the college level, they’re not going to learn it in one or two semesters; if they have, then the course is a pointless hoop-jump. And consequently, freshman comp is in general a waste of faculty time, student tuition, and taxpayer dollars.

Witness the stupidity of what’s happening to the guy who showed up at Heavenly Gardens with a passing grade in composition from a college on the quarter system. Because he had not physically sat in a classroom the desired number of hours, the District would give him only two of the three required credits for English 101. Consequently, he is having to take a one-credit special studies course with me, in which I am expected to jump him through the hoops of demonstrating that he’s read chapters in the textbook and then make him write an argumentative paper. He’s already done those things at the school whence he came. Nevermind that he turned in a perfectly fine “A” paper arguing that an investor’s risk tolerance (or lack thereof) should not override the need for diversification in a portfolio, no matter what the investor’s time of life. Making this man plod through one extra credit to prove his competence in writing a 750-word paper (about the length of a blog post!) is a pointless waste of his time.

The very idea iconizes what’s wrong with requiring freshman comp for every kid who comes down the pike.

Okay. So like Mitt Romney and his Republican pals, if I’m going to say everything is wrong with a policy, I need to come up with a functioning alternative. Here it is:

1. See to it that all K-12 teachers are literate. Too many people who go into education are about at the level of my freshmen. That’s why students come out of high school barely able to write their names: they’re being taught by rafts of education majors who themselves have never learned basic grammar, style, and punctuation and who may rarely have written a piece of exposition during their own years in school.

2. Train teachers in their subject matter, not in social work. If schools are to be institutions of social work, then hire social workers to do the social work and let teachers spend their time teaching.

3. Teach formal grammar, style, and punctuation starting about in the second grade. Teach standard American English to students in low-SES schools in such a way as to make them understand their own dialect is not “wrong” but that to succeed in the larger world, they need two dialects: whatever they speak on the street and the standard English they hear on the television.

4. Continue to teach students how the English language works — that is, explicitly to teach grammar, style, and spelling — all the way through to the end of the twelfth grade.

5. Teach a second language to all students, beginning in kindergarten and extending all the way through high school. If a student is already a native speaker of a language or is from a home where a language other than English is spoken, give that student formal training in the grammar, style, and spelling of that language and accept formal instruction in English as the person’s required second language, at least until a high level of fluency in writing as well as speaking is achieved. Learning a second language turbocharges logical thinking skills, narrows achievement gaps, enhances skills in mathematics and other core subjects, and, more specifically, leads to a stronger grasp of and skill in one’s native language.

6. Require expository writing assignments in every subject, beginning about in the third grade. As soon as a child can write a short essay, she or he must begin writing about things learned in school and in the world around us.

No matter what their subject, do not allow teachers to get out of requiring at least one expository term paper in every course, assessed according to a set of credible rubrics appropriate to grade level.

7. Do not allow regular English teachers (as opposed to teachers of distinct creative writing courses) to assign students to write poetry, short stories, and dreamy “journals.” Require that English classes teach exposition.

Especially, do not allow schools to substitute creative writing for English exposition under the rubric of “AP English,” as they do here in Arizona.

8. Require students to read all the time. If they live in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the parents don’t read because they don’t understand why they should read or because they can’t read, then set up the schools in those neighborhoods so that teachers begin reading aloud to students in kindergarten or preschool for at least an hour a day (not necessarily in one chunk), and continue reading to such students every day through the end of the fourth or fifth grade.

9. In all districts, provide after-school day-care for the youngest grades, during which reading aloud — either by the teachers or by the kids themselves in game-like contexts — is a required activity.

10. Ensure that at least 50% of this reading consists of real literature, not “YA” pap.

Do this, and the urgent sense that college students must somehow learn to write competently will go away.

Image: Sir John Lavery, Miss Auras, the Red Book. 1900. Public domain.


Posted in Teaching composition | 6 Comments

Countdown to Freedom: 10/16/2012

Thirteen more days to go.

No class on Thursday, grâce á Thanksgiving break. That would be “thanks to Thanksgiving,” a little overkill in the gratitude department. Because of the break, we have seven more 102 classes and only six more 101 classes.

The 101 students exhibited a great burst of competence this week. I was impressed. When faced with a piece of writing that is really very bad, they recognize what’s wrong with it and they can articulate, within limits, where the logical flaw is.

I came across this post at The Adjunct Project, whose proprietor has apparently decided to let the site function as a bitching board. He seems to be accepting just about any squib from anyone, come who may, as long as it contains a complaint about adjunct teaching.

On the surface, Mr. Domino’s post looked like a good essay to use as an example for their last paper, 750 words of argumentation. At 1,323 words, it’s twice as long as their requirement;  however, it addresses the course’s overarching subject matter (education in America), it demonstrates the use of research sources to support the author’s thesis, and it defends a point about the desired subject: that staffing college and university classrooms with grossly underpaid adjuncts degrades the quality of education in this country and over time erodes full-time faculties in a number of ways.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? In my experience, his first point at least is true. The second very well may be true in some institutions, because as administrators continue to respond to rising costs and shrinking budgets, they naturally will try to keep their institutions running with part-time help working for Third-World wages: the academic equivalent of outsourcing work to Mexico and Bangladesh.

The young pups were shocked when they realized how much adjunct faculty are paid; when they learned what I earn to run their course over an entire semester and that my pay is relatively generous compared to adjunct wages in other parts of the country, they were beyond shocked. An uneasy silence descended (briefly) over the room as they digested what it means to earn even less than $2,400 to design, teach, and assess a course over four months, and how many such courses one would have to teach to cobble together a marginally living wage.

As we progressed through reading the post aloud, though, they began to question elements of its author’s argument. In the first section, for example, where he holds forth about salary, Domino starts with a mention of the Chronicle‘s report that young PhD’s who imagined they would go from graduate school to entry-level academic jobs routinely find themselves buying groceries with food stamps. Then he jumps to the huge increase in underemployed Americans that occurred in the wake of the Great Recession, pointing to the number of Americans—all Americans in jobs of all kinds—who have been forced into part-time work. From there he complains that he hasn’t even been able to get an interview for the modestly paying full-time jobs that have come open in his district.

Asked, at the end of that section, “What do you think of this?,” the freshmen studied the copy on the overhead screen.

“Waitaminit,” one kid said. “One of those sources was published in 2009. The other is dated 2012. Is that legitimate?”

“Could be,” Virgil said to the budding Dante. “If they were talking about the same thing. Are they?”

Kid 1: “One of them is talking about what happened to all workers right after the recession. But by the beginning of 2012, the recession was over.”

Kid 2: “People with PhDs are not the same as all the other workers in the country.”

Kid 3: “A lot of people can’t get great jobs fresh out of college. Isn’t that different from being laid off your job?”

Conclusion: apples were being compared to oranges. Fallacy: faulty analogy!

Moving on to the post’s next section, “Benefits,” we find Mr. Domino complaining that money is withheld from his part-time pay for a 403(b) plan, that he has no choice in this, and that he needs every penny he earns to put food on the table. Says he, “When I questioned Human Resources, I was told schools do this to avoid contributing to employees’ social security [sic], in other words, save the college money [sic].”

The young visitors to the Inferno paused to gaze at this wonder.

“How can putting money from his paycheck into a retirement plan save the college money?” asked one of them. “It’s his money that’s going into the retirement plan.”

“Is a 403(b) the same as a 401(k)?” asked another.

“Yes,” I said. “The employer generally matches the employee’s contribution. But not always.”

They mulled this over.

“Well, wouldn’t it mean that if they were taking pre-tax money out of his pay, the college would have to pay less FICA on what would remain of his salary?”

“It would depend,” I said. “Anyone an accounting major or work in HR? Do you pay FICA on gross or after-tax salary?”

One student thought both the employer’s and the employee’s share of FICA are paid on gross earnings. Another thought it had to be on after-tax pay.






Lo! FICA is paid on gross salary, not on whatever is left after retirement, healthcare, and other deductions. And our author is caught in a muzzy misunderstanding, if not a downright factual error. The crime is compounded by the sentence fragment near the top of his paragraph.

Kid 1: “Does this guy really have a PhD?”

Virgil: “You don’t need a PhD to teach adjunct in a junior college. A master’s degree will do.”

Kid 1: “He has a master’s degree? In what?”

Moving on.

In the next section, the author trots out our favorite chestnut about students, “widespread deficiency in basic skills and cultural literacy,” as an example of the atrocious working conditions under which adjuncts must labor. To prove his point, he claims none of the students in four sections of freshman comp had ever heard of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. More oppressive still: they don’t even know who Freud is!

Virgil: “Who has read Walden Pond?” Four of about 17 students raised their paws.

“Anybody taken psych 101?” No one responded. “But have you ever heard of Sigmund Freud?”

Random kid: “Well, yeah!”

Supporting random kid: “Yeah. He’s the guy who started it.”

The rant about the bull-pen offices and the lockers (poor guy) elicited an observation from me that Heavenly Gardens adjuncts have no office space at all and can’t even stash a lunchbag in the departmental refrigerator, to say nothing of having a locker to hold coats and purses. Come to think of it, that $11 to $12/hour pay rate our author cites, the one that so shocked the 19-year-olds who earn more than that slinging burgers and managing retail outlets, is a little off: I pointed out that my de facto pay comes to about minimum wage, after you figure in the unpaid course prep time, the unpaid teacher prep workshops, the unpaid faculty meetings, and the unpaid grading time. Come to think of it, in the past I’ve calculated a rate that came to slightly less than minimum wage.

The $39,000 base starting pay for starting full-timers shocked them, too: they felt that was absurdly low for a college graduate with a master’s degree, to say nothing of a PhD. I pointed out that new full-time faculty at Heavenly Gardens start in the mid-50K range.

Now they began to question facts throughout the thing.

Kid: How can a 39-hour-a-week Walmart employee be classified as “part-time,” when 40 hours a week is full-time? You have to be working less than 50% time to be a part-time worker. Could our author mean a 49%-time employee? In that case, does he really think 49% of 40 hours is 39 hours?

Kid: What’s this “two-thirds model” thing?

Virgil: In theory, two-thirds of college faculty are adjunct. But I’ve heard it’s more like 80 percent…






In public four-year colleges, the percentage of instructional faculty who are part-time ranges from about 30 percent to about 60 percent. In two-year schools, the figures range from about 65 percent to about 77 percent.

This very month (November 5, 2012), the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2010 some 85 percent of community college instructors nationwide were ineligible for tenure (i.e., adjunct), and according to the same report, ratios in many university departments are almost as high.

That’s a whole lot different from one-third full-time and two-thirds part-time.

The author again declines into moaning at this point, which is toward the end of the post: “The two-thirds model (adjunct staffing percentage) can be described as analogous to the Feudal system, where the peasants and serfs constituted the majority and wealth and power were concentrated in the minority ruling class.”

While none of the students noticed that the word “feudal” is not a proper adjective, they did pick up on something more important:

Student 1: “Were serfs paid anything at all?”

Student 2: “I thought they were part of the family. Wasn’t serfdom some sort of family system of farming?”

Student 3: “Are peasants the same as serfs?”

Virgil: “Of course serfs weren’t paid anything. They were basically slaves. You could say they were attached to certain families in that they were attached to the land owned by a family of a wealthy aristocrats. They had no choice as to where they could go: they lived and worked wherever they happened to be born.”

“So,” said one young woman with devastating adolescent accuracy, “that is stupid!”

As the discussion turned to the post’s overall implication, the class reflected that the argument contained a basic fallacy: adjuncts are not serfs. No one is forced to work as an adjunct college instructor. If a college kid in a part-time job can earn more than an adjunct instructor over 16 weeks (a Walmart cashier working 20 hours a week earns $300 more than I do in the course of a semester, and a Costco cashier would earn $3004 more), then surely a person with a master’s or doctoral degree can do better.

Once one grasps the extreme unlikelihood that working for such ridiculous pay will ever land you a full-time academic job, a person who persists in teaching adjunct would have to be stupid as a post. A Costco supervisor earns significantly more than the starting full-time faculty wage cited by Mr. Domino—for a position presumably gained by dint of years spent in graduate school and then even more years spent working as a “serf.” And the Costco supervisor is not expected to put in unpaid time or to take work home with her.

Unless you have a source of independent income that allows you to regard your adjunct job as a hobby, continuing to work in the job under the present conditions—in which various circumstances discourage colleges from hiring full-time faculty and encourage them to hire part-timers—continuing to hold such jobs is pointless.

I was pleased with the 101s. They’re not as dumb as everyone claims. Given the opportunity and minimal ushering, they spot fallacies, they spot factual errors, and they even display a high degree of logical thinking skill.

There’s hope for America yet.



Posted in General Miseries, Students | 3 Comments

Writing Off-Key

When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it.

Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses

The online magazine writing students’ first full-length articles came in yesterday.

Lovely. Like listening to a ten-year-old fiddling on an out-of-tune violin. For obvious reasons, I can’t quote these things, but trust me: “literary flatting and sharping” is an understatement.

In the first place, several people evidently did not or could not read the syllabus, despite my inflicting a quiz over the thing. To pass the online quiz, they simply found the relevant passages, copied, them, and pasted them into the document without bothering to read said passages.

If you can’t read, what on earth makes you think you can write?

Then we get…

redundancy on redundancy
600-word documents with no discernible point
the trite piled upon the obvious piled upon the trite
ludicrous word choices
Latinate diction
Ebonic diction
bottomless wells of verbosity
hilarious dangling modifiers
a paper written on an iPhone, sans formatting, paragraphing, or punctuation

And so far I’ve read only one article and three late queries.

Really. If you can’t write on key, what makes you think you can write for publication?

Four more weeks of online interaction to go.

Posted in Idle essays | Leave a comment

Countdown to Freedom: 11/8/2012

Sixteen more days to go.

Tried my damnedest to lure the 101s into an interactive discussion of what’s involved in writing an effective argumentative research paper. Worse than pulling teeth: at least a dentist actually can get something out of the patient’s mouth. They sat there like fungi on a log.

Very, very slow-growing fungi.

Mrs. Annoyance showed up, sulked for a few minutes, and then walked out. Ms. A’s BFF, who claims she’s not (BFF, that is, or even an ordinary “friend”) chattered away irrelevantly until I shouted her down. The guy who sits closest to the door (and admits he does so to get a quick start out of the room) asked questions whose answers he should have figured out weeks ago. Mr. Aspberger was admirably restrained for the second day running, probably thanks to the calming absence of Ms. A.

Ms. Seniorcitizen texted a classmate with a message to me to the effect that she was in the ER, “sick as shit.”

Mr. Strangelove held forth on the comparative worth of various types of firearms. Mr. Aspberger, Mr. EscapeHatch, and Mr. Strangelove engaged a discussion of the relative culinary merits of pigeon, dove, and Gambel’s Quail; Ms. Not-a-BFF mentioned that she had enjoyed eating kangaroo meat at a restaurant in Banff. All the other girls pretended to be abhorred by this conversation.

Mr. Vet 1 and Mr. Vet 2 watched the show with passing amusement; Mr. Vet 2 came up after class to show off the swag he’d collected at a concurrent campus event for veterans (yes! a BLACK MUG AND A MATCHING PEN!!!), and Mr. Vet 1 launched yet another disquisition on his favorite subject, military vehicles.

Ms. LatterDay Nez Percé allowed as how she hadn’t begun the paper that was due at 5:00 p.m. this evening.

Mr. Histrionic negotiated a set-back in the due date to 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. This will allow me to read copy this evening: real copy for which I get paid a living wage, that is. Thank God there’s no class on Monday.

And so, to the client’s current page proofs.

Sixteen more days to go.

Image: “The Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth Wonderful performing geese, roosters and musical donkey.” The Strobridge Litho. Co., Cincinnati & New York. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

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Countdown to Freedom: 11/6/2012

Eighteen days to go.

Of the thirteen students remaining in the magazine writing course, five have turned in something in response to the assignment. That response is not necessarily the paper that’s due. Two people are turning in late work, having coming up with excuses to faze these past me despite the no-late-papers policy. A sixth person wrote to say she’s out of work and has been evicted from her home, and so she’s moving back in with her parents in Florida.

So what that means is that of twenty-five students, five are still in the course.

I’m afraid that when the chair finds out about this, as he will when his admin checks the final grade roster at the end of the semester, he’ll decide to quit offering the course. Which of course is actually what he should do: the institution can’t afford to mount a 25-person course for  just five people.

Only nine more meetings of each freshman comp section: hallelujah! We’re into the single digits. In a sense.

The 101s were tame today. Ms. Annoyance was cutting class, and everyone in the room (not just me) seemed to feel relieved in the absence of her constant buzz. Mr. Aspberger was much less tense and in fact behaved as though he was as much on top of things social as he is of things academic.

I like Mr. Aspberger. He has a kind of feckless charm; I think he’s a decent person, and I know he’s a bright young man. Where Ms. Annoyance seems to work at being annoying, Mr. Aspberger does the opposite: he works at not annoying, and sometimes, especially when he’s annoyed by Ms. A, he has to work very hard at it.

And I worry that he senses my own annoyance with Ms. A and resonates to it. Possibly he wouldn’t be agitated by that silly girl if she didn’t make me nuts. Like Mr. A, I work very hard not to display my annoyance (today if I were still 8 years old, some shrink almost certainly would “diagnose” me as ever so slightly in the Aspberger’s category), but I’m afraid that it must show now and again.

{sigh} And any such display, no matter how slight or subtle, is of course a failure. There’s only one good response to the Ms. A’s of this world, and that is to love them and care for them and guide them, as best one can, toward ways to accommodate themselves with life. Sometimes, though, it would take the patience of Job, the lifespan of Methuselah, and the goodness of Jesus Christ himself to accomplish that.

Our honored PTSD-afflicted veteran, one of the many lambs that we do love, wasn’t there today. He’s been in a lot of pain, he says, with the back injury. However, he’s managing to turn in the assignments on time, and IMHO what matters is proving you’ve acquired the skills required in a course, not that you’re sitting there compliantly every day. The same is true for Ms. Annoyance and Mr. Aspberger. But the helluvit is that our poor babygirl* isn’t proving that. Mr. A and the Vet are decently educated, articulate, hard-working, and can put together a competently organized document. Ms. A? None of the above apply. I don’t know why: she claims to work hard to get a C, but what she turns in doesn’t show much evidence of hard work.

My sense is that she can’t focus long enough or clearly enough to compile a short, researched document, and I really don’t know what to do about that. I’m afraid that what interferes with her success is beyond my ken. I’m not qualified to deal with psychological illness.

There’s one every year. Sometimes there’s one every semester.

After this, with any luck, there’ll be none.

Eighteen more days to go.

* I use that term advisedly. Although physically she appears to be about 18 or 19, her social skills are about on the ninth grade level. She’s childlike in every way except physical maturity.

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When Stupid Is Funny

This week I’m having the Monday-Wednesday 7:30 a.m. students meet with me one-on-one, briefly, to discuss any issues they may be having with their 2500-word research papers. There’s a pair who sit in the back row, talking and texting through most classes. The brighter of the two — let’s call her Ms. Paresseuse* — showed up late and so missed the sign-up sheet when it went around. Her pal, Mr. Perdant*, cut altogether. So after class she barged up, cutting off Mr. Workingman, who also arrived a few minutes late (but much sooner than she did), grabbed the sign-up sheet, and called Perdant on her cell.

After he woke up enough to understand what she was saying — i.e., you need to select a ten-minute slot to talk with the teeeeecher — he staked out ten minutes on Wednesday. She signed herself up for 7:30 on Monday. Mr. Workingman looked a little disgusted but managed to get himself a space on Monday.

As I was getting stuff ready for class this evening, what should I discover but that Ms. Paresseuse snabbed the very time slot that the first person to sign up had claimed. That is, she didn’t bother to read the times other classmates had taken!

:lol: :roll: :lol:

Mr. Workingman must have been quietly gratified when he saw that she’d shot herself in the foot, after she practically shoved him aside to get at the sign-up sheet before he did and then helped her boyfriend to cheat by grabbing a slot out of turn.

Of course I e-mailed her to suggest a different time slot, but it’s unlikely she’ll read her e-mail before 7:30 tomorrow morning, the hour she nailed. Students are so text-happy that many of them never read their e-mail at all anymore. So that means she’ll show up as dawn cracks. If she wants to talk with me, she’ll have to wait until 8:10. Or she could stand around until 8:45 and talk with me after class.

Mr. Perdant will not show up. He rarely appears in class, and the likelihood that he’s started on the paper is almost nil. When he does show up, he’s there in body only. So, even through the dim haze in which he dwells, he should be able to see how pointless it will be for him to meet with me to discuss what passes for his progress. Ms. Paresseuse does come to class most of the time — she’s only missed three days out of 21 so far — and so unfortunately she probably will surface at 7:30 tomorrow morning. So…goodie. I get to start my day with a nice little conflict. I can hardly wait.

*Don’t speak French? Pas de problème. You can always find it on the Internet!

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Out with Blackboard, In with Canvas

So yesterday I went out to Heavenly Gardens to spend two unpaid hours learning to use the District’s replacement for the hated Blackboard, a CMS known as Canvas. Designed by Instructure with, according to our instructor, the intention of being as un-Blackboard as possible but with virtually no advice from anyone who actually has to use the system to teach, it is every bit as complex and work-intensive as its competition.

All faculty who use the CMS in any capacity, even if it’s just to post a start-of-the-semester “Welcome” notice for face-to-face students, are required to attend the two-hour “Basic” workshop. No tickee, no laundry: if you haven’t shown up at one of these, IT won’t give your classes the Canvas shell.

Even though I’ve “retired” (the operative term is “escaped”) from teaching freshman comp, I’m keeping the online magazine writing course, because it’s easy, it attracts fewer fools, and most of the students actually want to take it. To direct those students to the site I built for them in WordPress, I have to post an announcement in Blackboard…or, starting next fall, in Canvas, which means I have to extract a shell from IT. So that meant donating two hours of free labor to the cause.

Opportunity cost: $180, including the hour of commute time.

As it developed, though, the two hours morphed into FOUR hours. Turns out the instructor had set up the “Advanced” workshop to flow right out of the first two hours.

Damn. I figured to be out by 3:00 p.m. Needed to go by Costco and then spend the remaining conscious hours cleaning my incredibly filthy house, since a friend was coming over this morning and I couldn’t entertain in a total pigpen.

But since I was on the campus, I decided the path of least resistance would be to sit through another two hours of jawing. Then at least I wouldn’t have to traipse out the campus for another unpaid workshop.

Now the opportunity cost was $360. Not counting the round-trip commute that racks up an hour of travel time.

Oh well. At 5:30, the Costco is almost empty. Got in there and out in just a few minutes; arrived at the Funny Farm a little after 6:00. Threw down some food for the dog and started cleaning. Dinnertime: around 9:30. And the truth is, the real opportunity cost was nil, since my best client has been on the road for a month, so no work has come in from those quarters, and our other current client has hit a slow spot.

The woman the District has hired to train people in the course management software and any  number of other handy things is extremely good at what she does. Not only does she know and keep up to date with these programs, she has a doctorate in instructional design. So I can’t complain about having to work with her: she is just great.

About Canvas, here is what I would say:

It appears to have a number of significant advantages over Hated Blackboard. For example, you can mark up papers within the system, using a screen that seems to be similar to the Mac’s Preview function. Thus your students do not have to save their papers in a Word-compatible format. Since some students simply refuse to even try to understand what you  mean when you say “save it as a .doc, a .docx, or an .rtf file,” this will obviate a fair amount of hassle. One of the 101 students still has not bothered to resend her first paper to me in a word-compatible file, and that class is now on its third major paper. How many times can you tell some idiot something without getting tired of hearing your own voice rattling in your head?

You can embed YouTube videos using YouTube’s code — except that you have to remember to select the OLD code. Apparently the new code is incompatible. As long as YouTube keeps providing the old code, though, that makes life a lot easier than it is in the Blackboard universe. In exploring around, I saw something that looked like a function that would let you record a video straight from inside the program. But since we didn’t touch on it during the workshop, I have no idea how (or if) it works.

Major, huge disadvantage: they change things about once every three weeks, with no notice and no explanation. We’re told that you can turn it on one day and have it look entirely different from the way it looked the previous day.

That will not make it for me. With each passing moment, I have less and less patience with the learning curve that stretches to infinity. And I would be extremely pissed if I had everything all set up the way I wanted it only to discover the whole construct was sabotaged at some nerd’s whim.

The District, we’re further told, is Instructure’s largest client (and it must be said: the District is one of the two largest community college districts in the land, with a student body larger even than Arizona State University’s, whose esteemed president equates quantity with quality and is trying to make his institution the world’s largest university). This outfit is young and small, not all that far beyond the start-up stage. So it remains to be seen how well they can handle a huge, chaotic, far-flung district that spreads across one of largest metropolitan areas in North America (Phoenix alone, not counting its swarm of suburbs, is geographically larger than L.A.). An online class that runs only eight weeks doesn’t have a lot of wriggle room to accommodate down time, especially when it comes at some critical juncture…like the last week of the semester.

So, even had I not resolved to quit devoting hours and hours of unpaid labor to a job that’s low-paying to begin with, I still would not incline to take my course off WordPress. While the extra $4800 a year that this course pays will come in handy, nevertheless, if they tell me I must move all that stuff over into Canvas, I’m going to quit. To make up the lost revenue, I’d have to bill all of another 80 hours a year: 1 and 33 minutes hours a week!


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Countdown to Freedom: 11/1/2012

Twenty days to go

We’re down to ten classes each, Eng. 101 and Eng. 102! And won’t it be nice when we’re in the single digits?

The li’l 101s have only two more major papers to write. They can’t get past the fact that they don’t get “rough drafts” for these things: that the Thesis/Paragraph/Citation exercise is their last chance to let me know how they’re doing and to show me they’re on track.

This afternoon two of them, asked to deliver oral progress reports, had to admit they haven’t even thought about the topics of their upcoming cause-and-effect papers. Others offered profound insights like “I’m writing my paper on education and the economy.” Uh huh.

The TP&C is due tonight…that’s right: by 5:00 p.m.

Having repeated “And what ABOUT [fill in the blank]?” until I was blue in the face, by the time class broke up I felt altogether out of sorts.

Ms. Annoyance was in full ADD mode, getting up and plugging her various devices into a wall outlet several times and then, when asked to deliver her assigned progress report, said “I can’t succeed at this because the teacher has already decided what grade I’m going to get in this course based on the grade I got on my first paper. That’s what all teachers do.”

Augh. Not to say barf.

I suggested she try doing a little research on the effect of teachers’ subjectivity on assessment of student work.

It actually would be a good idea for a student paper. She indicated she wasn’t especially interested in learning more about that, though.

This paper, which is worth 200 points, is due one week from today.

If I were an undergraduate student, I would be in a freaking frenzy if I had no idea what topic I was going to cover for a research paper due in seven days. Is it any wonder that they can’t write their way out of a wet paper bag?

The 102s are quiescent. They have only one paper left to write this semester, the 500-point monster 2,500-word researched position paper, upon which their passing or their failing of second-semester freshman comp rides. I’m not allowed to pass a student in the course who does not get a passing grade on the final paper. Ugh. Not to say barf.

Next week I’ve scheduled one-on-one meetings with this set of classmates. At least two of the ten who have made appointments can be relied upon to stand me up. So that will provide a little peace and quiet, anyway.

Twenty is a tetrahedral number.

A dodecahedron has twenty vertices.

In nuclear physics, twenty is a magic number.

The portrait of Andrew Jackson, who
seems to have had a premonition
of freshman composition students,
appears on the $20 bill.

Adam Smith, who looks fully capable
of whipping freshman comp students into shape,
appears on the £20 note.

Twenty was the age at which Levites
in the time of King David were allowed
“to do the work for the service of
the house of the Lord,” the Temple in Jerusalem.

A standard dartboard is laid out as twenty sectors.

Twenty days to go


A tetrahedron. Rendered by Blotwell using POV-Ray and converted with Adobe ImageReady. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Rotating dodecahedron. Created by en:User:Cyp. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.
Graph of isotopes by type of nuclear decay. Orange and blue nuclides are unstable, with the black squares between these regions representing stable nuclides. The unbroken line passing below many of the nuclides represents the theoretical position on the graph of nuclides for which proton number is the same as neutron number. The graph shows that elements with more than 20 protons must have more neutrons than protons, in order to be stable. Table_isotopes.svg: Napy1kenobi. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Andrew Jackson. Matthew Brady. Public domain.
Moses Pleading with Israel, as in Deuteronomy 6:1-15, illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Providence Lithograph Company. Public domain.
Diagram of a dartboard, without labels. User:IIVQ, User:Stannered. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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Countdown to Freedom: 10/31/2012

Twenty-one more days to go
Eleven more Eng. 101 class meetings
Ten more Eng. 102 class meetings

“Ten.” Now that starts to sound almost manageable. Wish it was t’other way around: ten Eng. 101 chivarees and eleven 102 shindigs. By and large I enjoy the 102 students. The 101s drive me nuts.

Making some plans for marketing The Copyeditor’s Desk: it’s always a good idea to visit a press’s editors in person when you’re trying to persuade them to hire you on a contract basis. I just realized that during the off-season, I could afford to drive to New Mexico, descend on the UNM Press in Albuquerque, and then hang out for a couple of days in Santa Fe. On the taxpayer dime, we might add, since the whole thing would be covered by the S-corp with pretax dollars. There are museums in Santa Fe that publish books, too, and so I should be able to make an appointment or two there, justifying the time in that lovely little burg.

That, unfortunately, will have to be put off until after Christmas. Obviously, I can’t spend a full day on the road when I’m meeting classes Monday thru Thursday. The semester won’t be done until halfway through December, and Santa Fe has a big holiday tourism frenzy. But in January it will be colder than a bigod, prices will be cheap, and shops and galleries uncrowded.

The University of Arizona Press, however, is only a two-hour drive from my front door, and so I could drive down there any day when I don’t have to cope with flicking students. If I left after a 7:30 a.m. class, I could be on the road before 9:00 a.m.; hit Tucson around 11:00, meet with an editor there, and be back up here by 3:00 p.m. That drive would only cost about $100; it would take $400 to $800 to do a junket to Santa Fe.

Two of this semester’s students are, I think, pulling some sort of a fast one. Particularly annoying: they’re both return students from earlier sections, and I think they each pulled the same scam before. One is in the 101 section and one is in the 102 section.

Here’s what they do: they sign up for the course. They show up for class. The one who looks and acts like the straightest of straight arrows shows up every single day, right on time or early. He participates in discussions and appears to have his act together. The other, who always looks amiably hung over, often cuts, but until the 45th-day cull, he shows up frequently enough to keep his place in the section. After 45th day, he shows up about once every three or four meetings.

So…what are they doing?

Well, the way I understand it, there are loans and apparently at least one scholarship or grant program that require the student to sign up for a certain minimum number of credits per semester. It does not matter whether they’re passing the courses: they just have to be enrolled.

So, if you send in a mid-term grade of an F or a D, it doesn’t affect the money they’re drawing down. If you dropped the kid, it certainly would—he or she could lose the loan or scholarship. At Heavenly Gardens there is no mid-term grade roster, but you have the option of sending a kind of warning to people who appear to be flunking, as if they cared, and so it’s unlikely that whoever operates a student aid program would know their progress until the final grades are emitted.

Interestingly, too, at the community colleges an F is better for your grade-point average than a D, because the F is negated if you take the course over for a passing grade. But if you get a D and then retake the course, the D is averaged into your overall grade-point average.

So, say you take English 101 and get an F (0 points); next semester your retake it and get an A (4 points): your grade-point average would be 4. But if you got a D (1 point) in that first semester and then got an A the second time around, the grade-point average would be 2.50.

Thus, if you’ve got a scam going, it’s in your interest to just not turn in any papers. You want to fail the course flat. Someday, if you decide to actually pursue a degree, you can take the courses for real, and your grade-point average would be respectable.

Because of the way my courses are structured, by the 45th day there’s a chance that if a kid turns in the assignments that are still due, he or she just might pass. And in English 102, the final paper is so heavily weighted that if you aced the two major and two minor assignments still due after the 45th day, did all the ancillary exercises associated with them, and nailed all the available extra credit, you could pass. Maybe. So, I tend not to drop people who are physically showing up in the classroom.

Clearly, though, a passing grade is not what’s desired.

If the theory is right—that they’re signing up for courses to collect money fraudulently—why kill the goose that laid the golden egg? If you know an instructor’s habit is to keep you on the roll if you show up semiregularly, even if you never submit a single assignment, you’d be crazy not to keep re-enrolling in that instructor’s sections.

So, what are they doing with their time when they’re not doing any classwork? Several possibilities come to mind.

  • Loafing. That would be good.
  • Working a part-time gig. Student aid combined with part-time work, even if the latter were minimum-wage, would add up to a moderately respectable living and spare one from having to spend eight hours a day on the job.
  • Dealing drugs. Showing up in class, making friends with the real-life students, and ingratiating yourself would allow you to build a nice clientele. That would make the student aid scam quite profitable, indeed.

{sigh} You see why I find this whole thing tedious?

Twenty-one more days to go.

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