About Another Classroom Activity

I have noted my return to teaching and commented upon some of the work I’ve done in the classroom after making that return, I know. The work continues, of course, and that means I’ve gotten to come up with more things for my students to do–and since I teach English, that’s meant I’ve had the opportunity to share my love of reading, and some of the things that I love to read, with my students. Whether or not they like it.

Christopher Marlowe - The Marlowe Society
The man himself
Image from the Marlowe Society, used for commentary.

One such thing was Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” a poem I’ve read repeatedly over the past twenty or so years and that I’d previously taught, along with Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” and Donne’s “The Bait,” several times during that span. I’ve enjoyed the reading and the teaching pretty much every time, and students usually get into it by the time we get to Donne, catching on to what’s going on in the poems and realizing that we are still doing more or less the same things the three of them do in their poems. When I had the students read and discuss the sequence most recently–a couple of weeks ago, as this emerges into the world–I had much the same experience; I had a good time, and so did the students, with even some of the more reticent getting into discussion.

I say much the same experience because there was one key difference. As it happened, I stumbled into understanding a joke in Marlowe’s poem that I’d not previously recognized–and I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t seen it before, although I must plead that I am not a specialist in early modern English literatures. I mean, yes, I sat for a comprehensive exam in it, but it was not my major or even my secondary area. (My apologies to Prof. Vaught; the fault is entirely mine.)

Anyway, at the beginning of the third stanza, Marlowe’s narrator offers to make for his putative love “beds of roses,” which seems a strange thing to offer someone, especially as a first item to be offered. Now, my students noted, rightly, that offering a bed works as an invitation into bed, and the shepherd is trying to make something of a score–a “goods for services” arrangement, as one student put it, not incorrectly. With the first class I had that day, though, I noted the thorniness of roses and that a bed of them would make for uncomfortable lying down–which the students seemed to understand and agree with.

With the second class I taught that day, though, I had the revelation. A bed of roses, one still having all the thorns, would be a bed upon which the shepherd’s love could expect to be pricked abundantly. It’s the kind of joke I should have pointed out years ago, a little bit of fun embedded in the lines that helps make them continue to merit study–and something that, like a chicken joke in Malory about which I failed to get published, I wouldn’t’ve realized without the help of my students. And it’s the kind of thing that makes teaching continue to be worthwhile.

I can, of course, use more help to keep doing this.

Another Rumination on a Missed Opportunity…That May Not Be Missed Much Longer

A while back, I opined about an assignment sequence I regret not offering when I was teaching college-level writing. At the time, I noted that there were reasons I was thinking about the assignment sequence again, but I declined to go into them; I can safely note now that I had been putting in for teaching positions in anticipation of my wife’s promotion and our relocation, one of which worked out, if not entirely expectedly. And, as it happens, some of the classes I am teaching–on-level high-school senior English, aimed at students not going straight into college–might actually lend themselves to something like that regretted-because-never-given assignment sequence.

#gif loop from CmdrKitten
Yessss….
Image from CmdrKitten, here, used for commentary.

Might.

I am tempted to try it, certainly, for all the reasons I noted earlier; it would be a coherent assignment sequence, and it would allow students practice in the kinds of workplace writing they are apt to encounter in the world outside college. (The job postings I still receive frequently call for high-school graduates and scads of report-writing, among others.) It would also be a different kind of engagement for the students, many of whom chafe at trudging through textbooks’ often-tepid literary selections and milquetoast interpretations of the same. (I don’t blame them, even if I am often frustrated by their intransigence.) And, yes, it would add to my portfolio, which, now that I am teaching again, would be a damned fine thing.

But.

I am teaching in a Texas Hill Country town, and not a large one. (As I write this, Burnet’s still under 10,000 people.) And while not all the stereotypes of such places are true, a fair number of them are; I anticipate that I’d have a fair amount of resistance from some quarters–and their parents. Some folks have never gotten over the Satanic panic, for example, and my own predilections are not likely to help that…

If I retool–maybe not for this year, but possibly for next?–I could make it an option, certainly; as long as it’s an option and not a requirement, I think I can get some grace from my administration. (So far, they’ve treated me well, and I don’t want to abuse that.) But how much will be extended…that’s always a question, and I’ve been…spoken to…about things before.

I guess I’ll have to give it some more thought.

Contribute to my delinquency, er, educational efforts?

About a Classroom Activity

I returned to the classroom last week, coming in a couple of weeks after school got started and falling into a week more abbreviated than had been expected; Labor Day, I knew was coming, but the closures on Tuesday and Wednesday to get some things done were…surprising. I put them to as much good use as I could, however, and, among others, drafted another example of an exercise I’ve used for years: a riddle quiz.

Not one of these, but like them…
Image is of the Exeter Book, from the British Library, used for commentary.

The quizzes follow a simple format. Students are presented with the text of a riddle into which deviations from “standard” orthography (yes, I am aware the phrase sounds tautological; it’s not, as standards vary among communities and smaller groups) are embedded. They are then asked to identify / adjust those deviations, answer the riddle, and explain from the text why the answer they give is an appropriate answer. Now, I’ve published on the topic of the assignment before. And, again, I’ve used it in my classes for years, both as an in-class minor assignment and, with some small adjustment, exam material. I had great success with it at several of the colleges and universities where I taught, even when the students were not necessarily academically prepared, and even when English was not the students’ first, second, third, or even fourth language. As such, I had reason to believe that it’d go over reasonably well with students at high school–which seemed a good thing, since I had to get materials ready in a hurry, and I have a lot of riddles ready to go.

Accordingly, I gave a riddle quiz to my students on the first day I met them. And it caused some consternation–but I expected that; new assignments always do the first time they come out. I expected, too, that the students would get hung up on getting the “right” answer, rather than working on the proofreading and the explanations; years of experience let me know that it would be so, but that the students would eventually tumble to the fact, openly and repeatedly stated in class that I don’t care about the answer, but about how the answer is explained from the text. It is, after all, the core act of English studies to look at a text, interpret the text, and explain how the text generates that interpretation. What I did not expect, however, is that the exercise would baffle my colleagues–yet it did, as they indicated to me. Given that, and given a somewhat belated review of some of the documentation I ought to have looked at sooner–had I but Marvell’s world enough and time!–I figured out that I’d overshot a bit, and I made adjustments to the grading on that particular assignment.

I’m still going to give riddle quizzes in the future, and I’ll be explaining to students the adjustment to the grading made on the first such quiz. The reminder that I have a lot yet to learn is a useful one; I hope, however, that I don’t need to repeat the lesson too often.

Contribute to my classroom conduct?

So, I’m Back in the Classroom Again

It is no secret at this point, as this and this make clear, that I have returned to classroom teaching. I’m still considering how to go about the work again, as I am aware that what I did in the college classroom is not always appropriate for a high school classroom. (Some of it wasn’t appropriate for a college classroom, either, really.) I can’t just translate it directly over, so I have to review practices individually to determine what will work as is, what will work with modifications, and what has to be dropped entirely. At least for now.

Something like this, yeah.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the things I did while I was teaching college was post class reports in this webspace or its predecessor. I don’t think I’ll be doing that with the high school classes. There’re a few reasons. One is that I think I need to keep some separation between this space, which will follow me if I move again, and my classroom-bound teaching. I mean, yes, I’ll draft materials here that I use there, but direct linking…is probably not advisable.

Another reason is the simple one of overload. I’ll be teaching seven classes this year. It’s a lot. I’ll have all the grading to do, too. Consequently, a lot of my mental energy will be taken up with working on, well, work; it won’t leave quite as much as I would like for classroom reports to populate to this space.

And there is this, too: the school website. I’ll be teaching with resources, and I’ll be putting things into those resources as much as anything else. There may be copies elsewhere–here–that get used as resources for other things, but there’s only so much duplication I can stand to make happen. The class reports for the daily class meetings will be a casualty of that.

I do still mean to compose end-of-year reports, though. Those, I should be able to do…

I remain appreciative of support?

A Rumination on an Opportunity that Never Arose

Around two months ago, I wrote a bit about a missed opportunity in my classroom. I’ve been thinking about such things again recently, not least because I’ve noted a lot of people looking at the syllabus for the hypothetical course on mainstream fantasy literature I developed back when I was actually looking for college–level teaching jobs. In it, I note that

texts included [in the required readings] exist in an uneasy tension. They do contribute to what prevailing understandings of fantasy literature as a genre is, to be sure, and they do try to strike some balance between male and female authorship. But they also fail to reflect the engagement of dominant traditions in the genre with authors of color. It is in part to work against such failure, and the failure of dominant tendencies in fantasy literature to engage with persons of color, that the major assignment sequence in the course is oriented as it is. Further, the specific failures of the required texts to treat and reflect persons of color will comprise a recurring thread in the required online discussions. (2)

Truth.
Image from PHD Comics, here, used for commentary

The problem I do not mention is, of course, that I do not flesh out those assignments. I’d meant to do so, I think; it’s been a while. But after I gave up the search for continuing work, it became less of an issue; I was still teaching, but I was teaching required syllabi, as is common enough. As with many things, returning to the project slipped my mind; perhaps it ought not to have done, and it does not excuse my failure that I am aware of it.

There’s more involved in assignment design than many realize, of course, and more than I can necessarily address in a single post (especially given the other stuff that I have going on in and around composing it; I’m moving, as might’ve been noted, and I continue to freelance and to participate in an NEH institute). But it might be a good starting point to follow up on the suggestion made already; the major assignment sequence in the syllabus, which results in a conference-length paper, (was meant to have) aimed at 1) looking at canon-formation and 2) suggesting what works / authors should be included in a future iteration of such a course. That is, students would have been asked to examine how “standard” bodies of work grow up, identify an author or work that seemed to fit that pattern, and then argue that said author / work should be included in the body of work studied as “standard” for the genre.

Considering the matter further, I am not sure I would still require an annotated bibliography from students. I taught or “taught” the genre at multiple institutions across many years, and it was always a struggle to get students through it; I am not sure it still carries the kind of traditional heft it seemed to when I was going through undergraduate coursework and being taught how to teach college English, although it certainly has come in handy in the years since (and I still work on one, obviously). Nor yet am I sure about all of the details; the summative exam included in the syllabus is a nod to what I’ve seen of institutional requirements, and the minor assignments mentioned are largely preparation for the exam, following my teaching practices at the time. (When I had the “luxury” of writing my own quizzes and tests, I’d pull the tests straight from the quizzes. It seemed to help.) But such things are dreams, really, glimpses of a life that never will be; I have enough to do with the life I do live, and with that, I should be content.

For now.

Care to help underwrite my efforts?

Some More Remarks about My Writing Process

I have commented once or twice before in this webspace about the ways in which I go about writing. As I’ve continued writing–that I have should be clear enough–I’ve made some changes to my processes, at least as pertains to some of the specific writing work that I do. One of the more frequent (and lucrative!) writing tasks to which I attend is drafting month-long lesson plans for various books and other works. It’s taken me a few tries to get a good process down that lets me move swiftly and effectively through the tasks, and because I think it will help, I offer an overview of that process below.

read new york GIF
I can’t pull off such shorts
Image from Giphy.com, here, and used for commentary.

When I accept an assignment–how I decide what I take is a discussion for another time, if ever–the first thing I do is get hold of a copy of the text to discuss. Sometimes, I already own a copy of it; I was an English major and I did teach literature for some years, so I do have a lot of books. Sometimes, I am able to borrow a copy from family or friends; I tend to hang around with literate types. On occasion, I make a quick purchase (business expenses are fun!), but most often, I take a trip down to the local library and borrow what I need. I pay into the public library system, after all, so I should be able to use it, much as I use roads and public utilities. And then I sit down to read.

Time was, of course, that I had time to spend days on end doing nothing but read. I remember those times fondly; I remember feeling myself grow intellectually, and I remember the feeling being exhilarating. No single moment stands out for me, admittedly, as is the case with some of my martial arts studies long ago or my band performances even further back, but it was a more sustained joy for me–and one that current circumstances no longer permit me. I have to work my day-job, after all, and I get to enjoy time with my family that I did not have when the thing I was supposed to do was my book-learnin’.

Now, though, I read in fits and starts. When I am able to devote hours at a stretch to a text, I make good progress through it; I do not read as swiftly as I used to, being somewhat out of practice, but I can still chew through several hundred pages in a day if given otherwise-idle time in which to do it. And I always read the text I’m writing up straight through once, reading as if just to read; doing so builds familiarity with the work, as I told students when I had them, which makes the subsequent work easier to do.

With the first reading done, I stub out the write-up. Again, I’ve gone through a few such write-ups at this point, and experience with them has helped me develop a template from which to work for the work I continue doing. It is set up with common expectations; I alter as needed, based on the work’s own subdivisions, getting the document ready to hold the required numbers of required items. Details of that, I must leave to the imagination; I do have to keep something to myself, after all.

Working The Incredibles GIF
Not that I’m incredible…
Image from Giphy.com, here, and used for commentary.

Once the write-up is stubbed out, I begin reading the assigned text again, using the second reading to draft a summary of the text, section by section, chapter by chapter, passage by passage. The work I do in the Hobb Reread has been useful practice for such activities; it’s part (but only part) of why I keep going with that project. I might occasionally stop the summarizing for a moment to make a note of some comment that will be useful for one of the required items in the write-up, but, for the most part, I plow straight through on the reading-and-summary work as I reread the text for the first time. It is slower going on the second reading, to be sure, as the necessary pauses to type things out mean less focused reading, but the familiarity developed in the first read-through is a help.

The second reread, which I try to start the next day after I complete the summarizing, goes slower yet, and it is because it is on that second rereading that the bulk of the write-up gets done. Attention to the details of the text and its paratext matters; it is from such details that the lesson-planning proceeds. And I have to be judicious in what I select from the details; the lesson plans ostensibly align with Common Core standards, which means they are aimed at use with high school students, and such experience as I have being one and training to teach them tells me that there are some things to which I might attend and which I might well treat with college students that I dare not handle with them. Parents can be…difficult.

The third reading is usually the last for me; I try to have things done with the write-up when I am done with the third reading. The rule of three might be something of a cliché, I admit, but it is something that works in the situation I’m in, and, to borrow another cliché, it ain’t broke, so I ain’t tryin’ to fix it.

I continue to appreciate your support.

A Rumination on a Missed Opportunity in the Classroom

I spent quite a while teaching, as I have noted in this webspace and elsewhere, and no small amount of that teaching was in a class I was never actually trained to teach: Technical Writing. I had no coursework in it as an undergrad or as a graduate student, but got thrust into it while I was completing my doctoral work. Coming up to speed teaching it took a little bit of doing, and, in retrospect, I have pity for those poor students who first suffered through my learning how to teach a course for which I had no preparation; I apologize to you for my inadequacies, whether or not you are reading this.

Yeah, this kind of thing.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As is often the case when something new emerges, I fell back on what I knew to start teaching the course–in this case, roleplaying game materials. I’d done it at other times, as I’ve attested, and, at some points (for example), I used RPG materials in classroom exercises in my technical writing classes–usually as examples of layout and ease-of-use, maybe for interrogation of audience–as in my more “normal” English (i.e., composition, literature) classes. Things may not have always gone over well–some sets of students took better to “nerd” pursuits than others–but they always got across the points I meant to make, and they provided concrete examples to help my students understand what to do and what not to do, both of which are important in fostering learning. So that much was successful in my teaching, and I should be pleased to have had that much success, at least.

But as I have been thinking on the matter, for reasons I’ll not get into here, I have realized I missed out on what would have been one hell of an opportunity to work with the technical writing classes (even if it is something I would’ve gotten…spoken to…about–but I got…spoken to…several times as it was; I might have had a bit more fun with it). I could have had my students design games or gaming modules and playtest them for each other, which would have offered them no small amount of practice in parsing directions, writing directions, testing those directions out, and working through the other kinds of work they were asked to do by curricular dicta.

A fairly common set of assignments in technical writing classes–both from my experience and from the reading I did years ago to try to support my suddenly emerging experience–includes a set of instructions, a project proposal, and a project report. Sandwiched between the latter two would (ideally–but how often we fall short of ideals!) be the execution of the project proposed. To my mind, the instructions could be that project, with the proposal outlining what is to be given instructions and how and the report being made from attempts to execute those instructions. And if those instructions happened to be a RPG or a module for an existing one…

Data rolls natural 20 : combinedgifs
As the saying goes, “trust Data, not Lore.”
Gif from Reddit.com, here, and used for commentary.

The way I’m envisioning it (from the vantage of it having been a while since I’ve had to write a syllabus from scratch–though I’ve done such things several times), students would be asked to complete major assignments as noted above: project proposal, instruction set, and project report. For the proposal, they would have to note whether they would develop a new RPG or a module for an existing RPG (the latter being more likely, the more so for a more compressed class). The instructions would be the actual gameplay; while I follow Mackay in calling RPGs an art, I acknowledge the necessity of rules in them–and what are rules but instruction sets? The report would, as gestured towards, detail play; it would note what led to the proposed project, give a description of the project and the playtest, and discuss results–what went well, what went poorly, and why. Formatting and usage concerns would be assessed as might be expected, with differences chiefly between the instruction set and the other documents; concerns of audience would necessitate dramatically different presentation there. Students would have experience with producing writing to order in genres not necessarily familiar to them, something common to people who try to make their living writing–and I am often told that making classroom activities mimetic of real-life practice is a good thing. Students of such a mind would have a portfolio object. And I might have both samples for future use (always helpful when teaching) and grist for the mill of my own gaming.

Such is not likely to be, of course. I am doubtful that I will be at the front of a technical writing classroom again, after all, or really any. But that does not mean I do not dream–and that working more on developing such a course is not without merit. It might help me get more of the kind of work I still like to do…

Care to put some money towards curriculum development?

A Rumination on Some Exercises

It is not exactly a secret that I spent more than a decade teaching, that I thought for many years that I would make a career of being at the front of a classroom, helping students at one level or another learn how to do things that they might not enjoy quite at the moment, but that would help them later on–and that they might well come to enjoy, even if they did not do so in the moment. I spent a lot of time learning how to do that very thing (although not enough, clearly, else I’d be doing it now instead of working the job I have–but that’s probably for the better), and, as part of that learning, I got to do a number of the exercises I would later ask my students to do. It’s a good thing, truly; it’s hard for a person to guide someone else through something they’ve not yet done, after all, and I did try to make a practice in my teaching years of doing the assignments I asked my students to do–or something very much like them (adjusting, of course, so that they would not have the work done for them; they’d not learn anything if it were simply handed to them). I may have gotten a lot of things wrong in the classroom–I know I did–but I got that done right, at least.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That said, I did not always find the assignments congenial–and, often enough, I was not in a position to simply select other exercises, being bound by my always-contingent positions to adhere to prescribed sequences of assignments. Since I still write, sometimes even for money, I still run into exercises that are not necessarily to my taste or liking; I still have to do writing that I find difficult, whether because I am not in a good headspace to do that work at that time, or because the work, however remunerative, is somehow otherwise objectionable to me. And sometimes, I have had exercises that I thought were good ones that ended up being…otherwise. The last, I try not to discuss more than to note that they have happened; it does me no good to dwell on the details more than I already have, and I can assure those readers who grace me with their eyes that I have rebuked myself thoroughly, at length, and in detail about my many failures. The first, I can address with another cup or pot of coffee and a shift in music, or else a lapse of a day–though that day all too often stretches out further than I ever ought to let it do.

The “otherwise objectionable,” though, is thornier. I have refused jobs that were outright racist or sexist to my first reading. (Yes, there have been some execrable fucks who’ve tried to get me to write for them.) More often, though, I’ve had issues of being asked to do writing that is innocuous enough on its surface but that is profoundly uncomfortable for me. The objection is not to the scope of the work, but to my having to do it; there are things which I do not do well because I know I should not be doing them. I try to be aware of my limitations, as those who have read my Hobb Reread entries will note; I often remark that I am not adept in a particular area, despite knowing enough to note that the area is applicable. Sometimes, I am aware of the mismatch before I get started, and I can turn away before going thence; too often, I do not realize it until I am in the midst of it, and all that remains is to plow ahead as best I can and keep it in mind for the future. And maybe I can work to be more comfortable talking about some other things than I already am, too.

That might actually be nice.

I can always use more help, and I always appreciate what I receive.

A Rumination on Something Recalled from Teaching

As I was chatting online with a friend of mine–yes, I have friends–I’d mentioned some of the work I’ve been doing recently. When I did so, I noted that part of that work is in drafting multiple choice questions and the answers for them–work that is not difficult, as such, but that takes a fair bit of time to do. That part makes sense, really; drafting multiple choice questions requires composing the stem (i.e., the question), the right answer, and three or four wrong answers (distractors). The distractors additionally have to look like they could be right (with the possible exception of one, which can be included as an “obviously wrong” answer and which I often use to make some kind of joke or another). But, anyway, as I was noting the work, I recalled a story that I recounted to said friend, who suggested I write it…

Oh, this takes me back…not that I follow the advice…
Image from Gerry Everding’s “For Better Multiple-Choice Tests, Avoid Tricky Questions, Study Finds” on The Source, and used for commentary.

Back in 2009, I started teaching at a two-year technical college in Midtown Manhattan. While the main campus was just out back of Penn Station, south of the big post office, the location where I taught was further up Eighth Avenue, and I remember the wind always smacking me in the face as I rounded the corner of 57th Street to get to the door. And most of the teaching I did there and then was remedial reading and writing, working with students who had been out of schooling for a while and needed to get reoriented to it or who had dropped out of school and were working on their GEDs. Most of them were older than I was, something I’d gotten to “enjoy” the entire time I was on site at grad school, and many of them had had…strained relationships with formal education previously.

Now, my usual teaching practice at the time was still worked with what I’d learned as I was getting certified to teach high school English; within the boundaries set for me by the institution, I offered a large number of smaller assignments, rather than a small number of larger ones. Most of the time, those assignments took the form of short-answer quizzes, usually what I used to close class (i.e., lecture, discussion, and activities happened, then the quiz; students could leave once the quiz was in). I’d generally score them fairly leniently, or what I thought of as leniently, returning them to students at the next class meeting and going over answers. But since I worked from my background and expertise, and the students came from different circumstances, what I looked for and what they offered did not always line up.

As such, one group of students asked me–rather vociferously, as it happened–to give them multiple choice quizzes instead of the short-answer I’d been assigning. At the time, I was doing the preliminary research for my dissertation, which was taking a lot of time, and I was learning how to live with my then-fiancee in advance of our wedding now more than eleven years behind us, which was also taking some time. (I love you, my sweet sopapilla!) Knowing from experience even then how much time was invested in putting together multiple choice questions, I was hesitant to oblige–and I admit to no small degree of annoyance in my “youthful” arrogance. How dare these…students question my assessment methods?

Look, I know I’ve been an asshole at least as often as not. I’ve been trying to be better, but I can’t change what I’ve been.

Anyway, the students kept pressing for the multiple choice quizzes, and I finally had enough of it. My lips curled in what might have been a smile or a snarl, and I asked them if they were sure they wanted the next quiz to be multiple choice–I didn’t have time to draft one that meeting. They said “Yes” in one voice, and they repeated it when I asked again “Really? Are you really sure?” So I nodded, made a note, and moved through the rest of the class meeting as if nothing had changed.

I didn’t do anything when I got home that night; class ran until 9pm, and I had an hour commute back to the apartment. The next morning, though, after I’d gotten showered and some coffee into me, I sat down to work, drafting the quiz I’d give to my students when I saw them next. I spent a while poring over it, working in some detail from the assigned readings (one of the areas where I did not have room to change things was in the reading sequence). And when that class met again, they got to sit for the quiz. Their faces nearly lit in joy when they saw that I had, indeed, given them what they wanted; they got a multiple choice quiz. The difference between the right answer and the distractors was in comma placement and nothing else, but they got the multiple choice quiz they’d asked for.

And they got another one in the next class meeting; every answer was C. On the one that followed, every answer was C–except the second-to-last one, which was A. After that one, the students asked if they could go back to the short-answer quizzes; I was happy to oblige them.

Honestly, I should have been happier when I obliged them the first time. Getting into what amounted to a pissing contest…it’s never a good look. Years later, I find myself regretting it–as I probably should have years ago.

Help fund me so that I can stay out of the classroom?

Another Student Story

A while back, I wrote about a former student I’ve decided to call Chuck. While he was something of a problem, largely for getting me involved with institutional bureaucracy, he was neither the only one such nor the first. Nor, in the event, was he the most problematic of them in that regard.

First Day Of College Read The Syllabus GIF - FirstDayOfCollege  ReadTheSyllabus Shock - Discover & Share GIFs
Useful advice that too few follow.
Image taken from Tenor.com, used for commentary.

No, that one for me was back at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I earned both of my graduate degrees and where I did my first few years of college teaching. In many ways, it was a good experience, although I readily admit I did not make the best possible use of my time there–but the fault for that is mine and not the institution’s.

While I was there, and maybe in my second year of teaching there, I had a slate of first-year composition classes, as is typical of graduate students in English. As is also typical, I had some conference activities scheduled, and, in an attempt to be responsible and forthright about them, I had noted on the course syllabus when I would be away to take care of them. And as is not uncommon, I also had a note on the course calendar about the mandated attendance policy–namely, that students could miss a set number of classes without penalty, but after that, grade penalties would accrue up to and including failing the course.

You may be able to guess where this is going.

As happened most sessions that I taught a class with a mandated attendance policy, some students suffered grade penalties due to missing too many classes. (In my defense, 1) the policies were mandated, and 2) I offered students the chance to “test out” of the class; if they could submit A papers without coming, I’d agree that they didn’t need to be in the room, and I’d excuse all their absences. None made the attempt.) As happened many such sessions, a few students failed on absences alone. And as happened more often than I care to recall, there were complaints about the grading.

The one that stands out, though, was a student I might well call Kofaire. She’d been a student in a second-semester composition class I taught in the spring, and she’d failed the class because she’d racked up something like thirteen absences in a class that met some forty-five times. (It’s been a few years, so my counts may be a bit off.) When she came to my office hours in the summer–because I tried to teach summers, needing the extra money–I looked over the records I had, quoted the mandated policy to her, and sent her on her way; I’d thought that would be the end of it.

Wrongly, in the event, because Kofaire went from me to my department head and made the same complaint. Of course, she got the same answer after the department head pulled her copy of my syllabus and the gradebook I’d turned in (because all of us were asked to do that). It should have ended there, and I think, on Kofaire’s part, it would have–but it stopped being up to Kofaire at that point, because Maman Kofaire got involved, then.

Karen | Know Your Meme
I don’t remember if her name was Karen…
Image from Know Your Meme, used for commentary.

I first learned of Maman’s involvement when I came into my office, checked my voicemail, and found not one, not two, but seven messages from her, asking (in various terms of politeness) that I call her back and talk about Kofaire’s grade. Now, FERPA being FERPA, and me still not having begun to mellow out in my old age, I did what I thought I ought to do: delete the messages. But they didn’t stop; when I came back to the office after teaching, I found three more messages waiting for me. And this went on for a couple of weeks, with every day seeing message after message after message asking and demanding that I talk with Maman about Kofaire’s grade.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t the only one getting to handle Maman. She’d gone in to talk to my department chair, bringing Kofaire with her and (inadvertently?) stepping around FERPA thereby. (The student, being present, could agree to have the conversation with others.) Kofaire had evidently been of the opinion that, if a day in the class had no explicit assignment made, there was no class that day–despite the explicit notes about when class wouldn’t meet. Maman seemed to think the same, complaining about spending her “hard-earned money for [Kofaire] to have a class with some damned worthless grad student” and vowing that it would never happen again.

My department chair sent her out of the office. I am told that the college dean did the same. As did the Dean of Students. And the Provost. Rumor reached me that Maman even tried to go to the University President, only to be asked something like “Why are you bothering me with this?” But it was more than rumor that let me know Maman hadn’t dropped the matter.

No, it was when Maman found out what classroom I was teaching in and ambushed me outside it, jawing at me for thirty minutes about how it wasn’t fair that Kofaire had fared poorly, and that she didn’t understand how some upjumped student could sit in judgment over her darling little girl. I count it to my credit that I kept my mouth shut except to say that “I can’t discuss students, ma’am” and to excuse myself as quickly as I could–to my department head’s office, where I reported the incident. I believe there was even paperwork.

I found out later from one of the campus police (I was in judo classes with him) that my report and the observed harassment from Maman Kofaire resulted in her being barred from campus. Kofaire herself, I believe, took second-semester composition again and had perfect attendance, scraping by with a low passing grade. And I have something of a story to tell, one I know others have, as well; maybe there’s some study that can be done about such narratives by someone who’s still able to be in academe…

I’m not writing syllabi anymore, but I am still writing, and I could still use your support!