Thursday, September 27, 2007

How many students is too many students?

An interesting article from the Daytona Beach News Journal online tackles the question of how many students is too many in an English Composition class. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommends no more than 20 students per class--and that no teacher has more than 60 writing students per teacher per term. As this article explains, though, with so many schools encouraged to increase enrollment (without increasing the number of faculty), the stress on these general education courses is growing.

My composition classes here at Shepherd are capped at 25. At UNCG, we were capped at 22. At Richmond it was 15 (what a treat that was!). Fifteen was awesome--as a teacher, I could give each student and each paper lots of time and attention. We could have meaningful discussions about writing and revisions. Twenty-two worked just fine, though, too. And even 25 isn't too bad--but it's clearly not ideal. (I can't remember how many students were in GST 101/102 classes at Roanoke--do any of my fellow alums remember?) Here's an excerpt from the article explaining why--and why there aren't any short-term solutions to this growing problem:

"Here is how it works: La'Shonda Broxton, an 18-year-old DBCC student, wrote a process essay on what it takes to be a successful high school freshman, and she was proud of her work.

Her professor, Carolyn West, wanted her to do better.

"She said I wasn't specific enough," Broxton said. "I wrote that it takes a good attitude and self-esteem. And she asked, 'How are you going to get attitude and self-esteem?' I wasn't specific enough."

That kind of individualized attention takes time, which is why the English teachers' council guidelines for a professor in one semester is three courses of no more than 20 students per class.

Evan Rivers, chairman of DBCC's English Department, said comp classes' enrollment was capped at 22 when he took over last year. This year, the cap was raised to 25 (and in one case 26) mostly because of the enrollment surge and the fact that English composition is a requirement for so many other classes.

"There's nothing I would like better than to follow National Council of Teachers of English guidelines. Nothing would make me happier . . . but there's nothing we can do," he said.

As I said above, 25 students is manageable, though not ideal. I am just worried that soon it will be 26, or 27, 0r 28--you get my point. As my previous posts about weekends spent grading indicate, the work load for these classes can be quite daunting. I hate to complain about my job because, as I've also written about before, I feel pretty darn lucky to get to do this for a living. But I do think there is a point where the quality of instruction will suffer too much to justify increasing enrollments. On the simplest level, as a teacher, I am a lot happier having to read 20 papers than having to read 25. That really isn't fair to the "extra" five students in my class.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wonders of the human brain

A little boy in Britain has life-saving brain surgery. Then his accent changes completely. Bizarre.

Things you overhear...

A couple of young guys outside of my office are exchanging girlfriend horror stories. This little excerpt cracked me up:

"It was the only time I've ever been physically afraid of a girl, man. She picked me up over her head and body-slammed me. As she's throwing me, I'm thinking about what it would be like if we got married, and it wasn't good, man."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Jonesy!

Sundays tend to make me a bit homesick--for my Roanoke friends, my Greensboro friends, and, of course, my family back in New York. Spending yet another weekend grading papers only exacerbates this feeling. And yet, I have to wonder how people survived before relatively cheap long-distance phone calls and, of course, emails. After all, today we really aren't ever all that far from the people we care about. I can even talk to my friend Jane (all the way in Azerbaijan) for about $0.34 a minute (given the right phone card company).

Anyway, this is all a long set-up to the main purpose of this message--to use this (relatively) new means of communication to wish a happy birthday to one of my best friends, Dr. Rita Jones-Hyde, all the way in Massachusetts. I miss ya, Jonesy, and I hope you have a great day!

Here's a photo of Jonesy and I in our "nerd glasses" (as if we needed them) courtesy of Liz W., who bought them for me to celebrate my first tenure-track job and for Jonesy to celebrate her successful defense.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What's good for Bing... also good for Wes.

As I mentioned in my post below, Wesley is a follower. Bing does something and Wes has to do it, too. This does work both ways sometimes, but Wesley is more of an imitator than Bing will ever be. Alas, what would Emerson (Ralph Waldo, that is) have to say about my cat? "Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide." I suppose Wes wouldn't make a very good transcendentalist.

Anyway, on Saturday night (post-refrigerator-sitting photo), I went to do some laundry and opened the closet where the machines are. Who do I find sleeping in the basket on top of the washing machine?

He does look pretty comfy, doesn't he? Fast-forward twenty-four hours. I notice the closet doors are slightly ajar. When I take a look, this is what I find:

Maybe I'll have to give this spot a try the next time I can't fall asleep.

How to survive an entire weekend of grading...

Step one: get two cats, preferably ones just like Bing and Wes. (Good luck with that.) Step two: laugh at the crazy things they do. Result: You will remember to take a break once in a while and thus stop yourself from throwing stacks of mediocre essays into the trash.

Here's an example: It's Saturday evening and I've been grading all day long. Seriously--even as I watch the Yankee game, I am grading. I notice that I haven't seen Bing or Wes in a while. This puts me on alert, because usually at least one of them is in my line of vision. Maybe they are sleeping upstairs or maybe the wind has blown a door shut upstairs, and one or both of them is stuck in a room. (Another likely scenario: one is indeed stuck in a room, and the other is on the other side of the door, providing a mixture of sympathetic identification and "Ha ha! You're trapped" torment for his brother.) Anyway, I grade another paper figuring they will show up eventually. But still no sign of them. So I start looking.

I don't have to look very far, though. There they both are, squeezed on top of the refrigerator, as if it were the most comfy seat in the house. It just cracked me up because they were both there. I've got some things up there, so trust me: there isn't that much room. Their body language told me that Bing got up there first. He likes it up there (I think) because he enjoys looking down on us little people. Then Wesley, who is such a follower, jumped up there, too. I am betting that Bing wasn't too happy about that and was probably considering jumping down, if only that didn't mean letting Wes have the space all to himself.

Anyway, here's the photographic evidence.

Can you see how crowded they are--how they are right up on the edge? Too funny. Anyway, finding them and having a good laugh was a welcome break. Then it was back to grading...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Something to chase the nightmares away...

Okay, so if like me, you are worried you'll have "Zeno the killer robot" nightmares, perhaps you need an image to cleanse your mind. May I present, then, the monkey and the pigeon?

So cute, right? You can read the story here.

Thanks for the nightmare material...

Am I the only one who finds this thing pretty freaking scary?

Meet Zeno, a new robot creation from Hanson Robotics. You can read all about him here. FYI: the creator's son is also named Zeno. Tell me this isn't some B horror movie plot waiting to happen.

And it just gets scarier! According to its creator: "It sees you and recognizes your face. It learns your name and can build a relationship with you." Yeah, a relationship of fear and terror as it chases you through the house, calling you by name.

Friday, September 7, 2007

How young is too young...

...for a lesson in American history from Dr. Tante Heidi? As soon as I spotted this statue of Thomas Jefferson sitting on a bench in Williamsburg, I ushered the kids over there and let them climb all over him.

I like this next one (despite the blurriness resulting from Colin being on the move) because of the way Olivia is looking at Jefferson. There's some great symbolism there: the kid born in another country looking at one of our founding fathers. She's too young to understand just how lucky she is to have gotten to come to the nation that Jefferson and his contemporaries built, but she'll know soon enough. That's also incredibly corny of me to note, but I can't help myself.

This next one cracks me up because Colin is patting Jefferson on the back. More symbolism, I think.

Honestly, the Park Service needs to put me on the payroll...

Can you guess where this lovely photo was taken? (The letters on the building ought to give you a clue.)

My third visit here since May was actually a lot of fun. No complaints!

How to entertain two three-year-olds...

Problem: How to entertain one three-year old nephew and one almost four-year old niece while their parents do some quick shopping in Williamsburg.
Solution: Bust out the super-cheap but oh-so-fun binoculars Dr. Tante Heidi picked up for them at Kaybee Toy Stores a couple of days before.

Tell me this isn't pretty darn cute! Notice that Olivia's got hers turned the wrong way. That kills me.

Here's a photo of two happy kids and one happy tante ("aunt" in German, for those who don't know).

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Write it down, you'll feel better...

I really believe in the words I've used for the title of this post. After all, I teach and study writing in lots of different forms and I am constantly telling my students how writing can change them, change their lives, and change the world. It's also a good way to just make a statement or let off steam.

I'm also a big fan of Found Magazine and the Book Inscriptions Project, two sites that collect the bits of writing we leave behind. So as you might imagine, I was really intrigued by the note I found stuck to the doorway in the hall near my office on campus.

Let me transcribe the words here: "To the individual who last Friday the 24th took my check book that I inadvertently left here as I was working in the station and then placed it on the park bench outside after taking all the cash--thank you! I don't need that money to feed myself, my dogs, my cats, my gas tank, do laundry, etc. And if you are in communications, Congratulations! You have a brilliant future at Fox News!"

Now I might not agree with the political sentiments of the last part of the note, but it did make me laugh. And by station, he/she meant the radio station, which is run right out of this building, too, quite close to my office. He/she is probably a communications major, too, so the idea of another communications major doing this is especially tough for the victim.

Anyway, the note intrigued me, and I say good for the writer for leaving it. I hope it made him/her feel better. And I hope the thief sees it and feels bad, although I doubt that will happen.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Other sites around Antietam

When my parents and I visited the park before, we rented this audio CD that you can play in your car as you drive through the battlefield. It can take well over two hours to do this, and we (thankfully) we didn't do it again on this visit. Don't get me wrong--it was all quite interesting, but I didn't really want to do it all again so soon. So we did the highlights portion instead, with my dad and I acting as guides for the rest of the group. As my dad explained it, there are about four must-see stops on the tour:

1) the Dunker Church (check--see post below).

2) The Cornfield, site of the bloodiest part of the battle, where troops fought to a stalemate for much of the morning. According to one soldier, the field "was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground."

3) Bloody Lane (check--see picture of Kelsie below. The Ohio Monument--further down in this post--was also at this stop). Here about 5600 men died between 9:30 and 1:00. Amazing.

4) Burnside's Bridge, which General Burnside struggled to get his troops across, even though they greatly outnumbered the Confederates defending the position.

Burnside's bridge is actually quite a beautiful spot. In fact, there is beauty throughout the battlefield--lots of plants and trees, and wildlife, too. The first time we visited it, I saw a big snake sunning himself on the bridge. This time, all I managed was this pretty shot of a butterfly.

You could spend several days seeing everything there is to see around the battlefield. I am just going to post a few more shots to give you a taste.

Of course, there are monuments everywhere. It's cool to think that each one of them has a separate and no doubt interesting story (or collection of stories) behind it. Here's a shot of three in a row. I really like the ones with soldiers on top.

Many of the monuments are also tributes to soldiers from specific states. Here's one for Pennsylvania, which, by the way, was well-represented.

Just for Shannon and Heather, I got Kelsie to pose in front of a monument for the soldiers from Ohio. Go Buckeyes!

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are also monuments marking where six generals were killed or fatally wounded. These sites are marked by upside down cannons, as you can see below. This particular marker is for Brigadier General George E. Anderson, of the Confederate States of America. You can read about him and the other generals killed at Antietam here.

So that wraps it up for Antietam, although I will add this brief postscript. This past weekend, when my sister Tara, her husband, and their two kids visited, we were talking about my guests the weekend before, and I mentioned to my sister my initial mixed feeling about visiting for a second time so close to my first visit. "But it turned out to be a fun afternoon," I said. "So," she said, "does that mean you would be willing to go back again for a third time?" Long story short, guess where I spent a large part of my Labor Day? And again, it was a nice way to spend the afternoon. But seriously, the National Park Service should consider putting me on the payroll. Maybe I'll post some more pictures of that visit.

Reenactors at Antietam

While we were visiting Antietam, I noticed a sign on the visitor's center that explained there would be reenactors from a Virginia Civil War group camped outside the Dunker Church, the first stop on the driving tour. "They will be available to answer questions," the sign noted. I think the troop might have been the 7th Virginia Infantry Company, but I can't remember for sure. Anyway, it turned out to be a great way to start our tour through the battlefield.

Here are a couple of shots of the soldiers set up outside the church. It was hot that day, and I would have been very uncomfortable if I were them. They also explained that they had slept outside in the tents the night before through much of a terrible rainstorm. When it got to be too much, they took refuge in the church. (Hey, that works on multiple levels, right?) Note the wonderful historical accuracy in the first photo, spoiled (like so many things) by an SUV parked behind the camp.

At first, my family was just milling around the site, looking at the soldiers and their props. I remembered what that sign had said, though, about asking questions. I also remembered those very eager and knowledgeable lighthouse guides in Cape Cod, who were also volunteers with a great passion for their subject matter. I knew these guys were itching to answer questions, so Kelsie and I walked up to one and asked him what they were cooking on the fire. That opened the floodgates for questions from the others, including my brother, who promptly began a very manly discussion about guns and bullets with a friendly reenactor. Witness the testosterone-filled photo below.

Just before we left, I asked the reenactor if I could take his picture with Kelsie, and he was happy to oblige. He didn't smile, though. Later I told Kelsie that no one really smiled for pictures back then, in part because they had such bad teeth. She got a kick out of that.

Okay--off to teach. More posts later!

Sorry it's been taking me awhile to get new posts up. I've had family visiting the past two weekends, which has been awesome, but also meant I've had a lot of catch-up work to do during the week.