Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Siddhartha Moment

I had a Siddhartha moment on Tuesday when I was enjoying the last warm day that we will be experiencing in this part of the world for sometime.   I was sitting on a park bench beside the Missouri River and delighting in the songs of birds, the shadows cast by the afternoon sun, and the movement of the river flowing south.  I had no thoughts of grading, and no other thoughts of worldly concerns, during that moment of intense sensory awareness.  I would have sat there much longer if my wife had not reminded me that we had errands to run.  

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Perils of Old Technology

My laptop computer, a HP Pavilion dv6, recently died after six and a half years of use. It would no longer boot up and only made a clicking sound when I pushed the start button. After researching the problem, I learned that the hard drive was stuck and that it could be possible to take apart the hard drive, unstick it, and salvage the information. My efforts at disassembling the hard drive only resulted in stripping the screws. A friend of my son’s later tried to unstick the hard drive and to salvage the information; unfortunately, the hard drive was too scratched to retrieve my files.

It occurred to me in November that time had passed since I had last backed up my files. Over Thanksgiving break, I downloaded all of my pictures, music, and documents to an external hard drive. I had a feeling that my laptop could fail and could wipe out many of my files. I ended up losing only a month of pictures and documents.

I should have realized sooner that my HP desktop was about to fail because about six months ago it refused to open Office 2010 after uploading and installing a monthly update from Microsoft. It took a hundred dollars and two phone sessions with technicians at Microsoft to get my Office 2010 working again. I learned later that I could upload Office 2013 for $10.00 because of an agreement that one of my institutions has with Microsoft.

Until I upgrade, my wife has lent me her Dell laptop. My desktop is running Vista and doesn’t has the memory to work with D2L and Blackboard, two learning management systems that I am using for my online classes. The keyboard of her laptop is positioned farther away from the edge and makes it difficult for me to type on, so I have had to add an external keyboard. Nonetheless, with six gigs of RAM, my wife's Dell is more capable of performing multiple tasks than my old HP was. My HP used to freeze sometimes when I was using Word2013 and playing music with Foobar2000. I often had to boot up my old desktop to run Foobar2000.

During one of our ice storms about ten years ago, I was typing up my grading comments when I started hearing the neighborhood transformers popping.  This occasion was three laptops ago. Our electricity went off soon after the nearest transformer went out. That loss of power made no difference in my working because I was able to continue for so long as the laptop battery remained charged. I have since decided that although a laptop has merits during those times when the power goes off, when I am bedridden, or when I need to take my work somewhere else, my best bet is to replace my laptop by getting a good desktop with two screens. A desktop with two large screens will make it easier to see my work and to perform multiple tasks at the same time.

I used to admire the six screens that Gordon Gekko had in his London office in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Surplus Exchange, a local business in Kansas City that sells used computer parts and discarded desks, could easily supply my needs, but I cannot ever see myself using more than two screens at the same time.

 My wife has since decided that she needs to start backing up more of her own files because of my loss of documents and pictures.

It was a sad moment when I added my HP laptop to the pile of E-waste at the local recycling center.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Cautiously Appreciating Our Weather

We think we were fortunate to get outside and bask in the sunlight on Tuesday and Wednesday during the last week of January.  Areas of the East Coast were getting pummeled with heavy snow while we were seeing temperatures in the 60's and 70's.  

Our winter in the middle of the continent has been visiting us for only short periods of time. It is no wonder that the lilac bushes behind our house are starting to bud. My wife and I saw fresh shoots of grass while we were at a park next to the Missouri River on Wednesday. 

While these moments of springlike weather are certainly delightful, we worry about how the plants and animals will respond.  We have started to see what appears to be mated pairs of birds at our feeder. Now as I write, it is snowing, and we can expect low temperatures in the single digits next week. It appears that there is indeed no normal weather anymore.  If we are seeing spring in January, what will the other months bring?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books & Reading

During the week of Thanksgiving, I overheard one of the clerks at Barnes & Noble say that he had read fifty-seven books so far during the year.  That number is an impressive one.  If that person had not read another book during the remaining weeks of the year, he would have read more than one book per week. 

I have had students who enroll in my writing classes who dislike reading and who claim not to have read a book since high school.  Some students complain about the amount of reading required in my online classes.  Another student even said that my written lectures contain too many words that he/she is forced to look up.  What I need to do is start keeping a record of those students who claim not to like reading so as to determine whether the students finish the course.

My students would benefit more if it were required that the students read a scholarly book during the semester, that is, a work of nonfiction containing notes and a bibliography.  Learning to introduce their sources and to evaluate them would not be such an alien concept if they had seen how other writers use sources.  It would help, too, if students could see how writers use quotes and, in most cases, avoid dropping them into paragraphs without an explanation.  Usually, the students entering my classes have only read fiction if they read at all.  Their experience with nonfiction has probably been limited to their textbooks.

At two of the institutions where I taught, the students enrolled in English 102, the equivalent of a second-semester writing course, were required to read a work of fiction.  One institution emphasized literature and had the students writing about each genre—fiction (novel and short fiction), poetry, and drama.  Another institution used this required novel as the foundation for the essays written during the semester.  One essay emphasized the social elements found in the novel, for example; another essay emphasized the author’s biography and those biographical elements found in the novel.  At both of these institutions, I chose the work of Willa Cather, My Antonia at one institution and O Pioneers! at the other one.  It was during a time when I was very much concerned with place, having adopted the Great Plains as my home after having known a peripatetic existence as a Navy brat.  My Antonia, of course, is so much more than a novel about place because of its emphasis on marriage and male-female relations.

If I had the opportunity to choose a book for my classes now, I would probably choose Capt. Charles Moore’s Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans.  On the surface, the book emphasizes Capt. Moore’s discovery of the gyre of plastic waste found in the Pacific Ocean.  It is also a book that emphasizes Capt. Moore’s growth as a writer.  Not having finished college and not having a science background, he set about learning to write for a peer-edited journal with the help of associates.  After conducting a survey of scholarship and after polishing his writing, he eventually had the first article he wrote accepted for publication.  These are the kinds of things that my students need to know about writing for an educated audience, that is, learning how to write takes time and that any one work cannot be completed quickly but requires draft after draft. 

Capt. Moore’s concluding chapter of the book is particularly enlightening because he describes how we humans are exposed to the chemicals found in plastic—e.g., phthalates and bisphenol-A—and how these plastics may affect our health.  This book, and the last chapter in particular, fits with the thematic nature of my current classes because some of my students are writing about plastic, using articles found in library databases.

Judging from the books that I have recorded at LibraryThing, I have read something like sixteen or seventeen books this year.  That does not count the books that I may have bought in previous years and only started reading recently.  I may have read two books a month during 2014.  I will have to keep a closer record of my reading during the coming year.  I have been reading two books recently.  One is a biography of a ghost town in the Kansas Flint Hills during the 19th century; it is written by Joseph V. Hickey, an anthropologist, and titled Ghost Settlement on the Prairie: A Biography of Thurman, Kansas.  I also just recently finished reading Wallace Stegner’s Recapitulation, which is mostly an interior monologue as Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City after a forty-five year absence.  As he attends a funeral for a relative, he comes to terms with his past during a period of twenty-four hours. Both books have sat on my shelf for a good number of years.  I read Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain about twenty-four years ago.  Recapitulation features the characters from that previous novel.  I am certainly not asking anyone to model their reading after my own.  What’s important is that I read regularly and that this reading serve as an inspiration for my own students to explore their interests and to challenge their minds by reading non-fiction occasionally.