Monthly Archives: August 2012

Professor is “Person of Interest” in Crime Against Civility

My contract starts up again on Monday, and one of the things I’ll be working on before classes start is Xeroxing my yellow and red warning cards–if anyone’s late to class one time, it’s an automatic yellow card, no matter the reason. Late a second time? Red card.

Once you get a red card, you have two options: go talk to our Student Services Director, so he can either kick some serious ass, or do some problem solving. Option #2 means you go to our Roadrunner Café Lunch Ladies and you do


You don’t get to come back to class until you have the signature from one of those folks.

The policy applies to me as much as my students, and it’s kept me on time, as much as it has my students. (Before motherhood, I swear I was NEVER late to class. But the last 7.5 years, I’ve felt so scrambled for time that I’m always thinking I can get just one more thing done before I walk over to class….)

Sure, it’s a little juvenile, which one of my consistently-tardy students complained, immediately, loudly, last fall when I introduced the cards. But, as another student said to him, “So get to class on time.”

What I like about this policy is that #1, it worked. #2, it was silly enough to bring some lightness to the subject. #3, it was so clear-cut that there wasn’t much fussing about it when someone was late. I think the idea began germinating when one of my colleagues said he has a cardboard box at the front of the room and anyone who was late had to bring a donation for the food pantry the next class period. I liked that, but then there’s a box to deal with, and worrying about students stealing ramen when I wasn’t looking. Warning cards seemed easier, and sillier. (And as we always used to say at Lake Benton Baptist Camp, soccer players have the best legs.)

All the best advice about handling classroom incivility involves making expectations clear and enforcing rules consistently.

The red card/yellow card (in addition to now implying that I perhaps watched more than three minutes of the Summer Olympics) allows me to be clear and consistent.

Do I wish, as a college professor, that I didn’t have to do anything like this, ever?

Sure. But if wishes were horses, I’d find them alarming and probably be allergic to them.

Part of what helps me love my job is that I try to teach the students I have, not the students I wish I had. And honestly? If I had the students I wish I had, I’d probably miss the ones I have now.

If I get out of teaching anytime soon, it won’t be because of my students.

We’ve seemed to have waves of tardiness at UW-Richland in the 20 years I’ve been there. Some semesters it’s an issue, most semesters not.

But I try not to blame students for this, not after I’ve made my expectations clear. I teach at a two-year campus, so I’m getting a lot of 18- and 19-year-old hooligan-wannabes, and my thinking is that they are JUST NOW absolutely responsible for themselves.

I’ve explored the issue of civility in the classroom a number of times in workshops that I facilitated, and that workshop is now available online, at the UW Colleges Virtual Teaching and Learning Center. It’s a narrated power point, and you can watch/listen any time you want, should you want to.

I try to emphasize the notion that if things are going badly in the classroom, it is, first and foremost, the professor’s job to figure out why. It behooves us, frankly, to look at ourselves as a “person of interest” in the case of crimes against civility.

These workshops have worked best in groups where faculty, staff, and students were present—otherwise, it’s too easy for one group to complain about the others. In groups with a cross-section, too, it becomes clear that there isn’t one right way to handle any of this. I would never say, for example, that everyone, or even anyone other than me, should use red warning cards as a way to curb tardiness. It works for me; it’s up to us to find what works for us.

I’m genuinely fond of students, and that comes across pretty consistently, but I’m still guilty of what they’d list as “bad professor behavior” sometimes–being too disorganized. It’s a relative thing, of course. I’m way more organized than some of my peers, and I’m not joking at all when I say I think there’s a lot of undiagnosed ADHD in academia.

But I’m more organized all the time, and one of the BIG crimes against civility I’ve been guilty of over the years–taking too long to return student work–is REMARKABLY improved (which is why I keep remarking on it–a fair number of the posts in my blog on procrastination have to do with this issue).

In fact, the fact that you can access a perfectly lovely version of the narrated power point on the VTLC site is proof I’m more organized. I offered to narrate it last spring so Jennifer Heinert, the current director of the VTLC, could make it part of an online workshop. I didn’t know at the time, but if you use a Mac to narrate a power point, the narration is likely to just cut out. Randomly. I didn’t have time to fix it last spring, but since Jennifer was getting good feedback on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Civility and Responsibility in the Classroom,” I wanted to make it right, and I told her I’d fix it over the summer.

It took several tries of narrating test power points on the Mac before I finally Googled the issue and found out it was mostly the Mac. Then I had to line up a mic for my office PC. Then I had to copy/paste each slide into a new document, because the mix of ppt/pptx in the old one was making the whole thing freeze up in places.

So it wasn’t perfect last spring, in terms of content, and it’s still not. I wish it were even more of a scholarly project—hope someone else can move it in a more rigorous SoTL/Scholarship of Teaching and Learning direction. It was absolutely FLAWED last spring in terms of execution. Still, it did some good, and now it’s fired up and ready to go for the fall semester.

Thus, even though I do not technically, typically score high in conscientiousness self-assessments, I am capable of doggedly finishing a project.

In this case, it’s because I have immense respect for Jennifer Heinert, and the original UWC VTLC Director, Nancy Chick, and I’m thrilled to be a part of what is a really valuable resource for us in the UW Colleges (and elsewhere—it’s online! It’s free! It’s pretty-much open access! It might be a MOOC!)

But I was also determined to make it work better because civility in the classroom is so important, and if I can do anything to spark conversations that make civility more common, I’m on it.

[The original title of this blog was “Kids These Days,” but I changed it. Even ironically, I didn’t like adding to that chorus. It’s not that I think my students always behave in lovely ways. They don’t, and I call them on it. But “kids these days” not only makes me sound old and crabby even when I insist I’m trying to make a joke about it, it’s not “these days.” I was very squirrelly as a first-year college student, and that was nearly 35 years ago. I was so squirrelly that my son would probably rate it as “Volume A.”]

On Conscientiousness

It smells like cider, my ongoing, lifelong lack
Of industry. We’ve lived here twelve years now,
this summer becoming for us a massive wreck
of good intentions rotting on the ground.

I was so happy when we bought this house,
With its fulsome, near-truck-garden and fruit trees.
But year by year I’ve scaled back. It turns out
I can’t work full-time and be a mom and weed.

Or maybe I just can’t keep up with everything
I wish I could. Unnecessary further proof
I am not Robert Frost: apple-picking
Exhausts me before I ever start. The ruin

of this apple harvest shames me, and yet—
a mess like this taught ancient humans to ferment.

I am now caught up with apple-mucking (cleaning up the rotten apples on the ground under our apple tree), and we did harvest enough to make some apple sauce. But there’s still a faint smell of cider in our backyard, and I’m sure the yellow jackets are still on the prowl. Now they can focus more on the rotten apples hanging high up in the tree, which I can no longer reach, because the apple-picking tool for high branches broke last year. It was modeled on one my Granma Roane used for her cherry tree–a broom handle with an empty tin can attached to the end.

I’m campaigning for a massive pruning of this tree this fall. It’s tall enough it could conceivably be a problem for the phone lines that run through it. Also, it’s too big for an orchard tree, and although we don’t have an orchard, we do have a plum tree and an asparagus bed, and some years I have an actual vegetable garden, so I need this tree to be manageable. Here’s what I’d like—a much smaller tree that I feel good about taking good, organic-gardener care of. I’d like to learn more about apple maggots and whatnot, so that our next harvest will yield fewer BUT MUCH NICER apples. The ones we get now are not the kind you can just pluck off the tree, polish up, and take a big bite out of. Almost every one has a worm in it, so you have to wash them & cut them & use only the parts not bruised by worm travel.

Pruning back the apple tree feels metaphorical to me right now.

This time last year, I came across an article in the New York Times on Grit. I loved the article a lot, and shared it with my students in my composition classes. Many of them seemed to benefit from it. Angela Duckworth is featured in the article; her research coined the term “grit,” and she has questionnaires available where you can see how “gritty” you are, and also how ambitious you are.

I would be VERY gritty if it weren’t for needing to admit that statements like “new ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones” are indeed “very much like me.” (If there were an option on the Likert scale that said, “Are you kidding? This is me, 1,000,000%,” I would have to choose that one.)

I am VERY ambitious. No qualifiers.

This article and Duckworth’s grit research helped me realize last fall that chief among the many things keeping me from realizing my ambitions, is my tendency to start new projects (without every actually letting go of previous projects). I decided to list, off the top of my head, the projects I had in mind to work on and complete in the next three years or so. Without even straining my memory at all, I came up with 17 projects. 17. Each of which I estimated would take six months to a year to complete, assuming that I still have to teach to pay the bills. Crazy. So I set up a survey asking people to help me decide where to focus my efforts. Not surprisingly, the votes were pretty evenly spread out, because I tried to choose people who knew me from a variety of contexts.

One thing that got proportionally more votes, which surprised me, was having actors perform some of my narrative poetry at The Sh*tty Barn (an amazing venue in Spring Green). So I churned out some grant applications, and am now in the process of working on that performance with David Daniel as my director. (More on that project soon, as we get the cast set and rehearsals in full gear—but mark your calendars: it’s happening on Monday, September 24, 2012!)

One thing that got fewer votes, proportionally, was raising funds for a sabbatical project—developing creativity workshops. I’m plowing ahead with that. It occurred to me as I was reading the survey results that I had not talked to many people about the project—so why would they vote for it?

(Blogging got a lot of votes. So here I am.)

My friend Kim’s response to the survey was recommending that I read an article on Atul Gawande (which I wrote about a little in a previous post, “On the Lighting of Farts and the Reduction of Bile”).

I identified with Gawande’s push for excellence, but I suspect I do not work as many hours as he does. I also suspect he is someone who needs less sleep than I do. (I often suspect this of successful people, which may not be logical.)

Regardless, I was already learning that I can only realistically work on one or two professional projects at a time even before I came across this quote:

“Highly productive academics focus on one thing at a time….Switching back and forth between ideas breaks up concentration and eats up valuable time. By contrast, people who meditate and focus on breathing are better able to concentrate and focus on their immediate tasks,” which comes from an article that brought Angela Duckworth back to the forefront of my brain recently.

(She’s also on my mind because I’m working on my syllabi for the fall semester, even though I’m not on contract again until 8/27.)

The article is called “Traits of the ‘Get It Done’ Personality: Laser Focus, Resilience, and True Grit” recently appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

NOW, in addition to Duckworth’s Grit and Ambition scales, I could also take Brent Roberts’ Conscientiousness quiz!

It turns out I score above average in virtue and responsibility (I will always be at least partially the GOOD BAPTIST GIRL I strove to be whilst growing up), and then ALMOST up to average on industriousness, and then far below average on self-control, order, and traditionalism. (Of those, I’d like to improve in self-control most. I’m not sure how much order I actually want or need, though more than I currently have, probably. Don’t care at all about traditionalism.)

The Chronicle article does a nice job of pointing out that it takes a balance of traits to publish successfully in academia—that you also need to be creative, and if you score high in traditionalism, for example, you’re not going to score high in creativity.

The article quotes Roberts: “If you look at the profile for someone who’s realized creative success, they can’t be conventional….Whether you’re an engineer or an artist or an English professor, your job is to create new knowledge.”

Which brings us back to those apples.

Yes, I wish I’d kept up with them as the summer wore on. Yes, I wish I’d pruned the tree years ago. Yes, I wish I’d hung up all manner of pie tins and jingle bells to scare away the birds and squirrels who started enjoying the apples long before they were ripe. Not having done any of those things, I am currently satisfied with having mucked up most of the cider makings.

I anticipate pruning the tree back because the huge harvest of minimally useful apples is not something I’m capable of (willing to be? interested in?) staying on top of. A significantly smaller harvest of more usable apples—I’ll Robert Frost myself all over that.

Metaphorically, then, I’m also learning how to prune back my short-term, how-much-can-I-actually-get-done-in-a-year ambitions. If I keep coming up with new ideas all the time, without following very many projects through to completion, I’ll end up with a multitude of rotten projects at my feet. (And that attracts yellow jackets, which, in my case, since I’ve already been promoted to full professor, can’t be a dossier committee—could be, instead, a hiring or grants committee that turns me down, OR, more likely, my own self-loathing thoughts.)

Let me emphasize–over the years, I have followed a number of projects through to completion, to respectable levels of success. Just not as many projects, and not the level of success I’d prefer. Other years I put up more apple sauce, in other words.

Two final thoughts on those apples–I suspect there’s a yellow jacket symbol for “kind-hearted woman” etched on every building and etchable plant in our yard, which, unfortunately, won’t keep them from stinging me.

And then this–if everyone on the planet had always been diligent about harvesting everything right when it was ripe and not letting anything rot, we would never, as a people, have discovered beer.

The End of the Drought

“nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands”
                        e.e. cummings



That’s where you’re wrong, e.e. (can I call you e.?)

Because when you’ve been in a drought and it finally rains,

Rains hard, sky green, trees whip-dancing like Salome,

Each drop reaches in like the tiniest hand, a clean

Well-meaning touch of good intent and love,

And suddenly I approach believing in a God

Who has a plan that we’ll eventually be fond of,

Once we learn the particulars she had in mind.

And even when we find ourselves still caught

In hell, in misery, injustice not

Yet made right, the pouring rain is pushing pause,

Is washing fresh, is resurrection, is applause.

I can’t remember ever being more

In love with the rain, or anyone, not ever.