Sunday, May 28, 2006

Not Reading Novels

It has become really hard for me to read a novel. Apart from The Bedford Incident, a quick read best enjoyed when lounging in bed, I haven’t read a novel in a couple of years, not since Hudson’s The Bones of Plenty. At some point, I plan on reading Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wister’s The Virginian, and Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I may even get to Winesburg, Ohio. But there hasn’t been a great deal of urgency.

Instead of fiction, I have been reading narratives of history. My dad gave me a copy of Stalingrad, which describes the initial optimism of war and the abandonment of so many German troops by their high command. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading histories of Kansas. Craig Miner, a history professor of mine when I was an undergraduate at Wichita State, first generated this interest in Kansas history with his accounts of life in Wichita during the 19th century. He read from his notes in one or two of his lectures, and these notes went on to form his book Wichita: The Early Years. The view from the bus window, and my imaginative recreations, during my trips to and from campus became much more interesting as a result of his class. In connection with my students’ research of the dead soldiers buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, I have also read accounts of Beecher Island, the Kidder Massacre, and Custer’s involvement in the summer campaign of 1867.

When I took over someone’s online class a couple of years ago, the students were readings articles about global warming, consumerism, fast food, and the influence of media. Not knowing much about these subjects, I felt as though I needed to know more, so I set about educating myself, beginning with the documentary Super Size Me. The extra features on the DVD contained an interview with Eric Schlosser, whose book Fast Food Nation was also mentioned in some of the articles that my students were reading. Schlosser’s book has altered my perspective of meat and fast food and continues to remain controversial today, four years after the initial publication. Big Food is still trying to downplay the negative publicity generated by Schlosser’s book.

Some of the other books that complimented my teaching include Mark Lynas’ High Tide, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy, and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. In connection with my research into global warming, I also read Paul Roberts’ The End of Oil. All of this reading has essentially made me more politically aware than I was before. I regularly visit websites now that present a more open-minded approach to current events. Oddly, about a year ago, I stopped having my students choose subjects like consumerism and global warming by incorporating a textbook into my class instead of using links to articles available through the college library databases. It was easier adopting a textbook than updating the articles for five or six different subjects. My own research of these previous subjects hasn’t ended, however, and I may return, at some point, to having my students choose from a list of articles for their essays.

In addition to reading what augments the subjects my students address, I like reading memoirs and biographies. A jazz fan, I am drawn to reading books about those musicians I admire, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece is particularly informative and enhances an appreciation of that classic album. I am also drawn to reading biographies of poets—Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Frost. Understanding the biographical allusions in the poems of these people isn’t essential, apart from Robert Lowell’s work. These books cause me to return to their poems and to discover poems that I overlooked; these books also result in an understanding of my own writing habits and ultimately cause me to write more of my own poems.

Not having a place to call home because of my Navy brat life, I adopted Kansas and the Great Plains once I left the Air Force. I wanted to escape from the overcrowding, the concrete, and the pollution of the East Coast. After each overseas duty station, my dad brought us back to Maryland, first Glen Burnie and then Crownsville, which provided the home base when my dad worked at NSA and when he was stationed at Cheltenham, Maryland and at Nebraska Avenue in D.C. I opted to live in Kansas, partly because it reminded me not only of the agricultural land in the Fens, north of Cambridge, England, where I attended high school and where I served in the Air Force, but also of the Atlantic Ocean, which I crossed by ship several times and which fascinated me because of the unbroken horizon during those clear days. After my first ten years in Kansas, when I had doubts about my connection with the place, I left the state for Connecticut and stayed there for three years. I liked living in Kansas more and came back. Not part of the Midwest, Kansas is one of the Great Plains states, even though the eastern border of the Great Plains doesn’t officially exist until the 98th meridian for some geographers and historians and not until the 100th meridian for other geographers and historians. (Leavenworth and Kansas City are closer to the 95th meridian.)

In adopting the Great Plains, I have been reading memoirs by people like Dan O’Brien, Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, and Julene Bair. It’s true that their experiences are different from mine because I have never farmed or worked on a ranch. Reading their work allows me to understand more about the landscape where I live and to learn some of the stories of people who have known this region.

I don’t believe that I can gain these kinds of benefits from reading novels. Willa Cather’s and Wallace Stegner’s novels are important depictions of life in the Great Plains. I turned to them first. Now I am seeking more background information and more first-person accounts in my reading about the Great Plains. My reading for my classes provides the information that I need to possess to point my students in certain directions; this more recent reading for my classes also provides an education in events that are so easily manipulated by those who either seek to profit from them or seek to misrepresent what has been happening in our lives.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Why Online? Teaching and Learning via a Modem

I think the biggest attraction of online teaching and learning is one of convenience. Students find that online learning fits in with their lives more easily, often because they are juggling child care and school or because they are trying to take a class while working full-time. Distance is often a factor, too. Students of mine have lived in places like New Orleans and Philadelphia. I have also had students from elsewhere in the state of Kansas, such as Beloit, Wichita, Pittsburg, Topeka, Manhattan, and Lawrence. My wife has had students logging into her classes from Germany and Bosnia.

Usually, the online classes offered at the colleges where I teach in Kansas City fill much sooner than onground classes. With the hassles that accompany technology, online learning can be much more difficult than students imagined. Not all of the students are as technically proficient as they need to be to navigate the class and to troubleshoot problems related to Java, for instance. The attrition rate in previous semesters has been as high as 50%; fewer students than anticipated withdrew during the most current semester, despite the introduction of WebCT 6.0 and all of the problems that occurred during the first month or so.

I first became interested in teaching online because of convenience, too. I was commuting a couple of hours a day from Leavenworth, which is in the northwestern edge of the Kansas City metro area. When my asthma led to problems sleeping, I was often exhausted when driving and caught myself nodding off at the wheel. Teaching online probably kept me from getting into a serious accident. Fortunately, I have now been getting shots twice a week for my asthma and sleep much better. Even so, teaching online prevents me from adding many more miles to my ten-year-old car, saves me money by not having to buy a newer car and by not buying so much high-priced gasoline, and contributes in a small way to reducing my carbon footprint.

I appreciate online learning the most during the winter when snow or an ice storm leaves several inches of accumulation on the roads and when the TV news reports on the amount of accidents and on the difficulties that drivers experience in trying to reach their homes. I can sit in my home office and glance out the window at the weather occasionally as I continue with my grading.

I am happy, too, at not having to deal with some of the more common discipline problems in the classroom. Students no longer attempt to talk to each other when I’m talking. Students no longer visibly show their disrespect by getting up out of their desks and walking out during the middle of class. Online classes have problems of their own. This last semester, a student who resented having to retake the second-semester composition class after having had the class at a private college openly expressed his negativity and intimidated some of the other students with his hostile views of the class and of those lifestyle choices he objected to in the reading. A few years ago, a student found it necessary to criticize one student who admitted having had an abortion and another student who admitted living a gay lifestyle. This student sent private e-mails to these students and quoted Bible verses in support of his own views.

Online learning requires that students take responsibility for their own education. A student who reads the material posted in the class and who communicates with me whenever questions arise regarding the assignments can succeed within the class. A student who doesn’t read the material and who doesn’t fulfill the assignments struggles with the class and often withdraws before the semester ends or simply disappears and doesn’t log on again. It isn’t possible to simply show up and sit passively in class.

There are also students whose writing skills require more individual attention than an online class can offer. These kinds of students often get angry and blame me for their own weaknesses when they never should have enrolled in the class.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Thoughts on Teaching Writing

At long last the semester has come to a close. Many of you probably have no idea what it takes to teach five sections of composition, with some of the sections having as many as twenty-five students. Each student turns in five essays, so there are a hundred essays to grade within any one section. When you multiple that number by five, the number of essays becomes overwhelming.

Usually, students tend to make the same mistakes in their writing. Students don’t realize what it takes to write a good essay in the second semester of composition, such as fulfilling the assignment, developing one’s ideas, integrating quotes smoothly, and documenting all of the sources that appear in the essay and from which words and/or ideas are borrowed. Some of the other essentials, which students still overlook, are creating an argument, maintaining one’s focus, using paragraph development, avoiding comma splices, fused sentences, and sentence fragments, and even catching spelling errors.

My students tend to experience the most problems when evaluating a movie and when critiquing a written text. The concept of establishing criteria unique to one particular genre of movie and providing evidence in support of each criterion proves particularly challenging. Likewise, students are often befuddled when expected to identify the intended audience in an article written for a journal like Harper’s, believing that the writer is addressing them.

I will be starting my twentieth year of teaching college English in August of this year. Occasionally, a student may think that I exhibit bias when grading his/her essay because the grade isn’t what the student had expected. I am long past the time when I had to shut down my own biases when grading an essay. It’s true that I am not particularly fond of reading essays about incest and rape. There aren’t other topics that offend me. Few if any topics can cause me to overlook my role as a teacher of writing. Some of the ideas are often stupid and not thought out, but I’m not going to tell the writer what I think directly. My opinion doesn’t matter; what matters is how well the writer has fulfilled the rhetorical situation and how well the writer has fulfilled the criteria for that particular essay while still conforming to the conventions of academic writing and standard written English.

Despite how hard I work during any given semester, there are still students who complain because of the final grade for the semester. Students think that grading someone’s writing is subjective when what I have said in these paragraphs proves that grading a text is actually quite objective. A teacher with less experience might exhibit idiosyncratic criteria when grading. Usually, when composition teachers are brought together and asked to evaluate someone’s essay, we can agree on that essay’s strengths and weaknesses.

You might be thinking that I now have the summer off to relax and do nothing until the start of classes in August. In two weeks, I will be teaching another four sections of composition; two of them will last seven weeks and the remaining two will last eight weeks. I get a longer break, about three weeks in length, when classes end in July.

One benefit to this frenzied pace of teaching and grading is that the students I encounter change from one semester to another. Some of them do leave a lasting impression. I can still remember the students I taught twenty years ago. I also see some of my students within the community, such as last summer when I entered the hospital for a brief stay and encountered a former student of mine who now works as a nurse. Another one of my students worked in a booth at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival and was surprised that I still knew her name. Those kinds of encounters are plusses. Fewer of these encounters occur now because I don’t see my students. We communicate within an online environment. Once in a while, I actually meet with a student who needs my help, or I see a photograph in the local newspaper that lets me match a name to a face. I can go out to the store now and not have someone say, “Hi, Dr. ------.” Sometimes I miss that recognition.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

West of the 100th Meridian

I managed to spend some time last weekend on the other side of the 100th meridian. Clicking on this photograph will enlarge it a bit. Notice how the road on the right of the photograph runs all of the way to the horizon. My wife thinks that Pete Townsend somehow had this kind of view in mind when writing "I Can See for Miles." It's easy to forget all of the problems occurring elsewhere in this country and overseas when living within such a landscape; it's easy to forget that anywhere else exists at all. This kind of place is my equivalent of Varykino.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Kneeling in Prayer

after the Pygmies
of the Iture Forest

I dropped part of my car outside
Enid, Oklahoma, along U.S. 64,
almost two years ago. My mechanic

gives it, maybe, another year.
The rust crunches away at its body,
peeling off strips of paint
before it chews through the frame.
My bank account spits out mud

whenever I lift the handle and try
to fill the sink. The IRS offers
to garnish my wages, adding a sprig
of watercress with each check.
Such gestures won't pay my bills.
If I only knew what to awaken,

I would sing sweetly, like droplets
of rain, offering a song each morning,
afternoon, and evening. My only tree,
a twenty year old cottonwood, whose limbs
shaded my window, and whose seeds
floated past like moths, dirtying

the neighbor's yard, was cut down
last summer when she complained
to the town. Nothing else covers me
but the sky. My landlord releasing
the coolant from the air conditioner
lets its cancer spread to clouds
and gnaw holes over Antarctica.

Maybe I should lie down next to you,
placing my ear over your stomach,
to hear a forest waking in your body.
The hourly bells of academe drifting
over the town call us now into prayer.

This older poem of mine appeared in Red Rock Review 13 (2003): 82. The references to the pygmies come from Denise Carmody"s The Oldest God: Archaic Religion Yesterday & Today, which I read when I was an undergraduate and in one of her classes.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Bluestem Poetry Award and its Demise

Bluestem Press at Emporia State University has announced that it has ended the Bluestem Poetry Award, a contest for full-length poetry collections. Phil Heldrich, a friend of mine, used to be instrumental in the operations of the press. He left Emporia a couple of years ago for a tenure track job elsewhere. Apparently, the problems that he mentioned regarding funding escalated in his absence although there could have been other forces at work, too.

During the eighteen years that the press was in existence, it published a few good collections. I can recommend Elizabeth Tibbetts’ In the Well (2002) and Matthew Spireng’s Out of Body (2004). My own creative writing students responded well to Elizabeth Tibbetts’ poems when I brought a few into class one night. Her poem "Coming Home" generated a lot of discussion because of its depiction of married love, especially the line, “and driving home to you and our new refrigerator.”

Except for 2001 when the press lacked funding, I worked as a preliminary judge for Bluestem’s annual poetry contest from 1999 to 2004. Each March, UPS delivered three large boxes of manuscripts to my door. I worked my way through the two hundred or so manuscripts, eliminating some fairly quickly, and eventually narrowing my choices down to three semi-finalists. Each preliminary reader, I think there were four of us, had his/her selections sent to the judge, someone like Mark Cox, Jonathan Holden, or Vivian Shipley, who would make the final selection.

The judging was blind, and none of the manuscripts contained the author’s name on the title page. Some of the writers managed to slip in their names elsewhere in the manuscript, however. As a poetry editor at Cimarron Review from 1995 to 1998, I also recognized some of the poems that I had selected. This recognition didn’t guarantee selection because I had to think of each collection as a whole.

I kept a record of those manuscripts I selected during my five years as a judge. It wasn’t until 2004 that the final judge agreed with me and selected Matthew Spireng’s Out of Body as the winner. When I saw the announcement in Poets & Writers, I vaguely recognized the name of the collection and had to doublecheck my notes to be sure.

A good number of the manuscripts that I selected have been published elsewhere and a few of them have won prestigious prizes as well. I selected Virginia Chase Sutton’s Netting the Gaudy Pearls in 1999. Her collection was later published by Chatoyant in 2003 under the title Embellishments. I selected Deborah Cummins Beyond the Reach in 2000; her collection was published by Bookmark Press in 2002. That same year I also selected Sherry Fairchok’s What They Wanted Me to Bring Back; her collection appeared as The Palace of Ashes in 2002. A portion of Paula Sergi’s Rooms We Could Live In, which I selected in 2003, appeared in 2005 as a chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Sheryl Luna’s Pity the Drowned Horses, which I chose in 2003 as well, was published in 2005 by U of Notre Dame P.

I haven’t heard about all of the manuscripts that I recommended during my tenure. Some of them may still be published somewhere at some future date.

Working as a judge was great fun. I feel proud of having made some good choices during my tenure. I have also played with the idea of creating my own chapbook contest, but the logistics prevent me from creating my own press and chapbook contest. Teaching and family take up the majority of my time at the moment. Grading essays even gets in the way of my own writing.