Teaching

Just testing

I did this about this time last year. Though then it was buried at the end of a much longer post about other things.

This is simply a bonus for any of my spring 2013 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I’ll add 0.5 points to your course grade. You’re free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. And, perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.

(For the curious out there, last year, out of 20 students who could have claimed this bonus, only 4 did.)

A new semester . . .

. . . means not just one, but two new syllabi: one for graduate students and one for (mostly) undergraduates. (Technically, of course, these are actually updated versions of older syllabi, but there’s plenty of freshness in each of them).

And, this time around anyway, the new semester also begins with a very freshly published essay on cultural studies and history (with the shockingly off-topic title of “Cultural Studies and History”).

How to plagiarize well (tips for my undergraduates)

Ideally, of course, this tip could be summed up in four simple words: Just Don’t Do It.

But you know that already. The syllabus tells you not to do so. Pretty much every instructor you’ve ever had since high school has told you not to do so. And yet, in spite of all that, you may someday find yourself in what we might call the Triple-P Problem: you’ve Procrastinated, and now you’re Panicking, so you turn to Plagiarism and hope against hope that I will somehow fail to notice that the words I’m reading aren’t your own. The odds are pretty good, however, that such hope is misplaced, since the same procrastination problem that has put you in this particular pickle also means that you don’t have time to cover your tracks especially well. So I’m going to share a few basic tips with you — all based upon actual mistakes that your predecessors in my classes have made over the years — so that you don’t follow in their footsteps and wind up with a bright, shiny F on your transcript.

  • Don’t plagiarize from the course readings. The odds are pretty good that I’ve done the course readings myself. You can, in fact, pretty much count on it. Which makes the odds pretty good that when I read long passages from those same readings in your paper, I will recognize them and know exactly where they came from. If you’re going to steal someone else’s words and try and pass them off as your own, it would be wise to steer clear of sources that you know that I have read myself. [Bonus sub-tip: If you're foolish enough to steal from readings on our syllabus, at least pick one that we haven't specifically focused on as an example of a pathetically weak, unsupported argument.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that I’m likely to be familiar with. Obviously, this is much trickier than avoiding stuff on the syllabus, since you don’t know what other books and articles I might recognize. But if your paper happens to contain some unusual turn of phrase that (a) will be widely recognized by scholars in the field as a key concept in an oft-cited work, and (b) isn’t a phrase that an average person is likely to have come up with independently, then you run a high risk of getting caught. [Bonus sub-tip: Don't give your paper the same title as a famous book on your subject.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that are too far afield. This would seem to contradict my previous tip, but it’s important to strike a proper balance here. If you’re relying on a source that is too far removed from the actual subject at hand, it will almost certainly jump out at me as unusual (at best) or suspicious (at worst). You need to find a comfortable middle zone between “too close” and “too far” that won’t raise either of my eyebrows. [Bonus sub-tip: In my classes anyway, stick to readings from humanities disciplines. When your paper on contemporary mass media (of the non-digital variety) is filled with technical jargon from computer science, I see red flags right away.]
  • Don’t simply cut-and-paste your borrowed prose. I know. It’s quick. It’s easy. It saves you lots of time, and time is precisely what you don’t have lots of. But it also makes it very easy to spot the bits of your paper that have been lifted from elsewhere, especially if you don’t bother to adjust your fonts so that everything matches neatly. [Bonus sub-tip: When copying from an online source, take extra care to do something about any hyperlinks you're bringing along for the ride. When small phrases show up in your paper underlined and in blue ink, it's extraordinarily easy for me to know what to Google so I can find your original source.]
  • Don’t use prose that doesn’t sound anything like the way you actually speak or write. If you are prone to uttering simple, short, declarative statements, a paper filled with elaborate, flowery, multi-claused sentences is probably not going to be convincing. It’s also wise to steer clear of borrowing from sources that use lots of specialized jargon that you don’t understand, since I’m not likely to believe that you actually wrote that sentence about “the precession of simulacra” yourself if you haven’t been prone to saying such things out loud in class already. [Bonus sub-tip: If you don't know how to use semi-colons correctly, don't use prose from other people that employs them extensively.]
  • Don’t submit a paper that you haven’t actually read. Again, I know that actually reading what you turn in will slow the process down, and you simply don’t have a lot of time to spare. But this is a very important step. If I suspect (but cannot prove) that you have turned in a plagiarized paper, the first thing I will ask you is if you can tell me about your thought/work process in writing the paper . . . and if you haven’t read the stuff you’ve handed in as yours, then the game is up. [Bonus sub-tip: If you've been crafty enough to have someone else write your paper for you, it's extra important for you to read what they've written before I do . . . especially if your ghost writer has spelled your name wrong on the cover page.]

If you’ve actually followed all the steps above, then there’s a halfway decent chance that I may actually believe that what you’ve handed me is something you have written yourself. Congratulations! Of course, at this point, the odds are also still pretty good that what you’ve handed in doesn’t fit the assignment well enough to earn a respectable grade. And you’ve done as much work (and maybe even more) trying to cover your tracks as you would have had to do in order to write the paper yourself. But now you may squeak by with a D instead of an F. So it’s all been worthwhile, yes?

Hackable syllabus 2.0

Over winter break, I did something that most of my peers would — rightly — describe as insane. I took a course that I had just finished teaching, which I was scheduled to teach again this semester, and I more or less redesigned it from the ground up. The normal thing to do, of course, would have been to take my fall syllabus, change all the dates, and be done with it. Maybe if I were feeling especially ambitious — or if I knew something had bombed abysmally — I’d have swapped out a reading or two. But even for someone (like me) who rarely teaches any course precisely the same way twice, this was an extreme overhaul: i.e., the sort of thing I might do if the gap between the two versions of the course was a few years. While I used the same required text, that only kept the first two weeks or so of readings intact. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a completely new course.

tt_4291.jpgSo why the radical renovation? There are probably many reasons (and my dubious grip on sanity may still be one of them), but one of the biggest is that the fall version of the course was the latest in a long line of “experiments” I’ve undertaken with what I call a “hackable syllabus” . . . and it seemed to me that the main pedagogical goals I’d been trying to achieve had never actually come to fruition, and so the time had come to rethink the nature of that experiment.

The experiment in question originally grew out of a summer grad seminar on “Communication and Critical Pedagogy” that I taught towards the end of my time at USF. In the midst of one of those seminar discussions, when we were talking about the need to give students a significant measure of control over their own education, I decided that my previous efforts to do such a thing had been too superficial — e.g., letting students select from a pre-determined menu of assignments, or giving them flexible due dates for papers — and that I needed to embrace this philosophy more fully. Coincidentally, for reasons I can neither recall nor explain, sometime that same summer I also heard about a game called Nomic. I’ve still never actually played the game, but its fundamental nature — it’s essentially a meta-game, where you play the game by changing the rules of the game as you go along — struck me as something that could fit very nicely with my newfound desire to turn as much of a course over to my students as I possibly could. And so the hackable syllabus was born . . .

On its surface, the hackable syllabus looks incredibly complex — which is probably necessary, but also probably one of its major flaws. In practice, it’s much simpler than it appears to be: students can propose changes to almost any and every rule on the syllabus (including the reading list, due dates, and the graded assignments), the class as a whole discusses and votes on proposals, and proposals that are voted into place become part of the course rules. Most of the apparent complexity lies in setting up a fair and reliable mechanism by which the rules can actually be changed. The actual process varied slightly from one version of the syllabus to another, but the underlying core — propose rule changes, discuss them, vote on them — was still pretty simple . . . yet, time after time, students routinely got hung up on the mechanism in countless different ways, and never, ever really took control of the syllabus at the level I had hoped they might.

To be sure, they had good incentives to do so. Every hackable syllabus contained deliberately cruel and unreasonable rules that students needed to locate and vote out of existence, lest said “bad rules” come into play. And every successful rule change resulted in the authors of said change earning an extra point tacked onto their final course grades. Still, over seven different courses, each with slightly different versions of the hackable syllabus, a consistent pattern emerged: students would eliminate all the bad rules (though, typically, they would only do so after a false start or three), they would tweak some extraordinarily minor aspect of the grading policy (e.g., eliminating penalties for late arrivals and early departures), and they’d be done. No one ever tried to change the reading list. No one ever proposed a different sort of graded assignment be added to the menu of options. Once they’d freed themselves of the need to bring impossible-to-find yoga mats to class (and so on), they were perfectly content to leave the core of the course — i.e., what they had to read and write — up to me.

Of course, this “failure” was never really my students’ fault. At some crucial level, I always knew that, and probably should have done something about it sooner. If nothing else, by the time students wound up in one of my hackable syllabus courses, they had all experienced 15-20 years of education where they had routinely been handed a set of readings and assignments on Day One, and that was that. So of course they never raced to revise the reading list or to envision new assignments: never having been asked to do such a thing before, the odds that they would suddenly take such an initiative were slim to none.

So that radical rewrite of my fall syllabus was all about finding ways to encourage this semester’s batch of students to help build our reading list. (Encouraging them to craft new types of assignments is a goal that will have to wait for some future course. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.) I gave them a syllabus where the first month’s worth of readings was all lined up. After that, each week has a theme and one starter reading in place . . . and it’s up to them to come up with enough other readings (or videos, or audios, as they see fit) to bring us up to ~100 pages/week (or its audio-visual equivalent). There are collective sticks for falling short of that page-count target, and individual carrots for helping to reach it.

And, so far anyway, it seems to be working. We’re currently two weeks deep into the land of “Student-Provided Readings” and the group has hit the target both times, and put some worthy material on the table for us to read and watch and discuss. We’ll see how it goes for the next ten weeks or so but, to this point, I’m feeling pretty good about that “insane” decision.

[Bonus for any of my spring 2012 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I'll add 0.5 points to your course grade and shrink your Take-Home Final by 50 words and 0.5 points. You're free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. P.S.: Perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.]

More found haiku (more grad seminar reading)

must have money and
a room of one’s own if she
is to write fiction

– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Found haiku of the day (grad seminar reading edition)

to uphold basic
human justice you must do
so for everyone

– Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, p. 93

[And I know I'm sorta cheatin' the syllable count in the last line a bit, but no one really enunciates that second E in "everyone," do they?]

Lies we tell our students

It’s the start of another semester, so I thought it would be a good time to share what has become a standard part of my Day One spiel for my undergrads. I’ve taken to giving some version of this, no matter what the course actually is, partially because Day One is a good time for us all to reflect on the bigger questions of what this whole “higher education” thang is all about . . . but also because it helps to set up the more course-specific stuff that always follows this about active learning and the need for my students to participate in what we’ll be doing for the four months that follow. But enough preamble. On with the show.

You have been cheated. Misled. Lied to. By the U. By your high school. By your grade school. By your parents. By a lot of people. You’ve been cheated in many ways, but the ones I want to talk about are these:

  • You’ve been lied to about what your tuition buys you.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your education is supposed to be for.
  • You’ve been lied to about what you should expect from your courses.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your role in getting an education really is.

Big Lie #1. Show of hands, please. How many of you are paying for your own education? [Wait for it.] Sorry, but you’re wrong. This is not your fault. You’ve simply been trapped in one of the Big Lies that universities (among others) tell on a regular basis — and have started telling more and more over the past decade or two. You are, of course, paying good money. But you’re not paying for your education. Universities aren’t actually in the business of selling education — though they certainly want you to think they are — because education can’t actually be bought and sold.

Put simply, education is what happens when you learn something you didn’t know before. Ideally, that still takes place all the time on university campuses . . . but when it happens, it’s got nothing to do with what the university is actually selling. You can, after all, go sit in one of the big lecture halls on the West Bank from 9-5 all day every day for the next four months — most of the time, no one will know that you’re not actually registered for whatever courses you’re witnessing — and you can learn an awful lot simply by paying careful attention to lectures you haven’t paid a dime for. Similarly, you could take a copy of my syllabus (or anyone’s), go find all the readings for free in the library, and learn a great deal without ever writing anyone a check. In fact, you don’t even need a syllabus. The university library stacks are open to the public. Go in. Pick a floor. Start reading. Do that for 8 hours/day, 5 days/week, 50 weeks/year (i.e., as if it were a regular job) and you’ll get yourself a pretty impressive education.

What you get when you spend your tuition dollars, however, is not education. Rather, what you get when you write out that check to the U is the privilege of being evaluated and — if you meet a particular set of standards — of being credentialed. Ideally, you’re being evaluated on things that the university is helping you learn. But you don’t get an automatic refund if you don’t actually learn anything — nor do you get charged extra if you happen to learn more than what’s on the syllabus — because what you’re really paying for is for people like me to assign you a variety of tasks and then judge you on how well you perform those tasks. In the eyes of the university, if you actually get an education along the way, that’s great. Ideal, even, since it helps them keep that Big Lie in place. But the university isn’t selling education any more than health clubs sell fitness. In both cases, your money buys you access to the institution, but that’s it. Whether you actually get fit or educated depends on what you do after your check has cleared and you can’t get that money back.

Big Lie #2. You have been told that your education — particularly your college education — is the ticket to a Good Job. There’s a very tiny shred of truth in this, at least insofar as a college degree will make it more likely (though by no means guaranteed) that you’ll wind up with a job that pays you an annual salary rather than one that pays you an hourly wage. Eventually. Bearing in mind that “eventually” may still mean 10-12 years from now. But there’s much more to a Good Job than good pay. Lots of people, after all, make very good money working jobs they actively hate and that give them ulcers.

More importantly, that college degree hasn’t automatically translated into a Good Job upon graduation for at least 25 years. This sad truth is even sadder because it has nothing to do with questions of actual merit, skill, or brains. Most of you — even the best and the brightest of you — will graduate without a Good Job in hand . . . or even on the horizon. Again, not your fault. There simply aren’t enough Good Jobs for all the new college graduates who enter the job market every year. This was true even before the economy went into the toilet. But it is even more true now.

I still keep in touch with some of the best students I’ve had. People who I know are brilliant, articulate, creative, motivated, etc. People who I’ve written letters of recommendation for. People who will almost certainly succeed at anything they want to . . . if they’re given the chance to do so. As far as I know, none of these students from the past 5-10 years is actually unemployed right now. But most of them are still trying to find jobs that are more than placeholder positions that help pay the bills until they can find the career that they really want for themselves. These people aren’t lacking Good Jobs because they’re uneducated or unqualified or unmotivated. Far from it. They’re lacking Good Jobs because there simply aren’t enough of those out there.

Mind you, this is not necessarily the end of the world. There’s a lot to be said for taking some post-graduation time to breathe, to find yourself, and to figure out what you really want to do with your life — even if that means working a not-so-good job (or two) and living on the cheap for a while. Except, of course, that you’ve been told for most of your lives that the real reason you should go to college is so that you can get a Good Job. So you’ve been fed unrealistic expectations by people who really should know better. ‘Cause the non-connection between “a college degree” and “a Good Job” has been true ever since I graduated from college . . . way back in 1986. Which means that it’s been true for at least as long as most of you have been alive. Probably much longer. I was fed this big lie too, after all. And while I wound up with a Good Job in the end, that process still took about ten years after I finished my B.A.

Connected to Big Lie #2 is Big Lie #3: that the quality of your education is measured by your “grades.” That you should be worried about bringing home a report card filled with As (and maybe a B or two), because a high GPA demonstrates that you’ve gotten a good education . . . and that a high GPA will help secure you a Good Job.

Trouble is, in the long run, no one really cares about your GPA. But especially not future employers. When it’s your job to produce a presentation that will help your employer land the big contract that will keep your company afloat (and keep you employed) for another three years, your 3.8 GPA isn’t going to write a kick-ass presentation for you. It won’t guarantee that you’re able to write a kick-ass presentation. It won’t help you keep your job if you write a weak presentation. You will actually have to be able to write that kick-ass presentation.

Perhaps more to the point, the quality of your education isn’t measured very well by your grades at all. A grade simply demonstrates that you were given a set of tasks and someone evaluated you on how well you did those tasks. But it’s possible (for example) to learn a great deal but perform poorly when tested . . . or to ace a test without retaining anything meaningful about the subject after the test is done. In the former case, you’ve got a good education but a lousy grade. In the latter case, you’ve got a lousy education but a good grade.

Put those pieces of the puzzle together and most of you have been led to believe that the most important thing you should expect out of a course is a grade. As a kid, your parents are proud of you if you get As. They’re disappointed when you get Cs. And, typically, they’re much more likely to go to parent-teacher conferences and ask questions about your test scores (how can we help him get better grades?) than about the content of the curriculum (we think that it would enrich her life as a citizen of the world to learn French; where can we find a tutor for her?). It doesn’t take long before most children learn that they, too, should worry more about their grades than about their education.

Big Lie #4. Most of you — most of us — grew up in educational systems that were designed to produce good grades rather than active, engaged, productive citizens. Your average public school system, for example, gets extra funding when its standardized test scores go up, rather than when its graduates go on to become brilliant scientists or ground-breaking novelists. And so most school systems focus their energies on training students to produce good test scores. Which essentially means that you’re trained — from a very early age — to sit still, shut up, do what people in authority tell you to do, and regurgitate whatever they say on tests and exams and essays. Whether you actually learn something that matters is secondary to whether your school district’s test scores are higher than those in the next county.

And so you’ve also been lied to about the role that you should play in your own education. Which is not the role of the passive spectator who memorizes facts and figures and spews them back. There are contexts where rote memorization is valuable and important . . . but if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re not being educated: you’re being indoctrinated. A real education requires you to be actively involved. It requires you to participate. To ask questions. To engage in dialogue. To be challenged by ideas and opinions and worldviews that are different from your own. It requires you to analyze. To synthesize. To create.

These are the sorts of things you need to do routinely in the “real world.” A large part of what it means to be an adult, after all, is that you’re on your own, you’re independent, you’re taking responsibility for your own well-being — and those are difficult things to do if the major lessons you’ve been given on how to cope with the world are to sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told.

Now I’d be lying if I said that this course, all by itself, can erase all those Big Lies. We’re together in this classroom for a grand total of about 48 hours over the next four months . . . which is not a lot of time compared to the 20 or so years of lies you’ve been fed about how you should simply sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told. But, with any luck, this class can be a start.

Resolution on a stick

It’s a cliché of the highest order — especially for us academics on the humanities side of campus — but I’ve resolved to be better about writing this year. Book writing. Essay writing. Correspondence writing. And, yes, blog writing. I’ve cleaned up my home office. I’ve rearranged it a bit to make it a more comfortable, ergonomic space in which to work. officeI’ve set myself some (hopefully) manageable goals and am trying to settle into new routines. We’ll see how this goes in the days and weeks to come, of course. But one of those new routines includes a target of 2-3 fresh blog posts each week, with a potential tie-in to the grad seminar I’m teaching this spring. So here I am, poking away at my iPad, and trying to breathe some life back into this dusty little corner of the interwebs.

And, yes, I’m aiming to blog from my iPad as much as I can. The laptop is still always an option — and it’s certainly a friendlier typing machine — but I’m also not a touch-typist, so I’ve got no indelible home-key habits or tactile rhythms to disrupt when faced with a virtual keyboard embedded in a sheet of touch-sensitive glass. The iPad is also a much more frequent companion than the laptop as I move about town (and beyond) these days. And, perhaps most crucially, several months back, I splurged on a WordPress-friendly blogging app several months ago that has simply been gathering dust in its corner of my home screen. So this piece of my resolution also helps me recoup my major economic investment in Blogsy. After all, that’s $5 that I will never, ever get back . . .

I’ll admit that when the iPad first came out, I wasn’t even remotely tempted by it. I simply didn’t see the point. I already had an iPod Touch and a laptop, and I was perfectly happy with both. More specifically, the iPad seemed to me to be precisely the wrong combination of the two: an iPod that was to big to fit in my pocket, and a portable computer that was too small and too weak to fit my everyday needs. But then I spent a lovely chunk of my July in Belgium, where I watched some good friends zip around with these light, bright, tight little machines for note-taking, emailing, game-playing (etc.) . . . and I got a serious case of Gear Envy.

And so I splurged. And, six months or so later, I haven’t regretted it at all. The iPad won’t replace my laptop as my primary computing device. I’m still too big a fan of the penguin and open source software to join the Cupertino cabal as a full-time member. And, even given all the wondrous things one can do with cloud computing these days, I’m not yet ready to give up on a machine where several gigabytes of files — from old syllabi to new music, digital photos to PDF-ified readings — are always available to me, even when I’m not online.

Regardless of what device I’m using, though, (and, truth be told, I’ve now worked on this entry on both my available options) I’m aiming to drop more text in this space in the coming year than was the case in 2011. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a promise or a threat.

January notable nine

For perhaps obvious reasons, this month’s list has been a little harder to write up. And the most important item was also the hardest to find any good words for at all. The pictures will have to do.

  1. Mocha Java, Empress of All North America. I let the old girl go on Jan 21. It was time. She went quietly and peacefully. I still miss her, of course. And I’m sure I will for a long time to come.
    mocha1.jpg     mocha2.jpg
  2. Paris. Right before classes started, I spent seven days in Europe, mostly in my capacity as Acting Chair of the Association for Cultural Studies. The bulk of my time was spent in Paris to help survey the facilities for the Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference . . . and I think it’s shaping up to be a fabulous event. Here, though, I simply want to note how weirdly comfortable Paris felt, given how awkward my “command” (much too strong a word in this context) of the French language is. If you believe my undergraduate institution, I’m “proficient” in French and German. Even then, I knew that institutional proclamation overstated my abilities to handle either language with real comfort. Twenty-five years later (and with little real practice in the interim), as I boarded my flight, I felt even less confident. And yet, on this trip, just enough of that ancient training came back to me to make me feel as if I could stumble my way through with only minimal embarrassment. With a little (okay, a lot) of practice, I might even be able to hold brief conversations about something more complex than purchasing train tickets or sandwiches. This sounds like a laudable goal for me to aim for between now and next July.
  3. Ghent. The small chunk of time I didn’t spend in Paris on that European trip was spent in Ghent. Also on ACS business, but this time to do some advance planning for the first ever ACS Summer Institute. Which I’m also very excited about. Not the least because Ghent is a wonderful little city, and will be even more exciting when (a) I have more than 24 hours to experience it and (b) it’s summer. I even found a Belgian beer (Westmalle Dubbel) that made me feel okay about spending so much time in countries where the hop-heavy brews I generally prefer are nowhere to be found.
  4. European trains. The one major blemish on my otherwise thoroughly enjoyable week abroad was a small (but expensive) curse that appeared to settle over my attempts to move around the continent (even in a small way) by train. I booked my train tickets between Paris and Ghent prior to leaving the States, hoping that this would help make things easier for me. Which it totally would have done . . . had I not misread my own timetable and missed my scheduled train to Ghent. Or had I not managed to lose my ticket for the train back to Paris in the short walk from grabbing dinner in Brussels (where I knew my ticket was in my hand) and walking back to the train station (where said ticket was nowhere to be found). The trains themselves were comfortable, pleasant, and quick. But my ability to manage my timing and my tickets was clearly beset by some bad juju.
  5. Car troubles. The flights to and from Paris were absolutely fine — especially the flight back, which was only about a third full, and where everyone got to stretch out quite comfortably indeed — or else I might think that bad juju covered just about any form of transportation I touched in January. The first time I tried to drive my Beetle after I got back into the country, it stalled out on me . . . and wouldn’t start up again. At some point, it seems, I must have hit a rock or a chunk of jagged ice or something that ripped a hole in my oil pan. Which, of course, drained all the oil out of my engine. Which, in turn, caused the engine to lock up. For good. Ouch. On the plus side, my insurance covered this. And my usual mechanic (who I’m delighted to recommend as fast, friendly, and affordable) happened to have a used Jetta they were looking to sell, and that I’m very happy with. But losing my dog and my car in the same week did have me wondering whether I’d stepped into some old-time country song.
  6. Ice dams. For folks who live south of the frozen tundra that is Minnesota, ice dams may be an unknown beast. I certainly knew nothing about them until I moved here. But they’re a plague that can beset snow-covered roofs if just enough heat escapes for some of that snow to melt and then re-freeze . . . so that any subsequent meltage gets blocked by the wall of ice that’s formed on your roof . . . and, with nowhere else to go, said meltage can then trickle underneath your shingles and into your walls and ceilings. And you can only imagine the fun that results from that. Unfortunately, my knowledge of such “fun” was not simply imaginary this year. Fortunately, the internal damage I suffered was very minor — and caught before it grew into something much more serious. Still.
  7. Lauryn Hill. Her First Avenue show could have been fabulous. I certainly wanted it to be. After I’d already dropped money on not-so-cheap tickets, I started hearing tales of other recent shows where she would wait hours to appear on stage and then perform badly . . . but I was still hopeful. But that hope was misplaced. Even at the end of a loooong day on campus, I could probably have weathered the 2.5 hour wait (doors opened at 9, with nothing but a so-so DJ to entertain the actual show started at about 11:30) if Hill had truly rocked the house, or if her band had been tight, or if her grooves had been compelling. But none of those things happened. My friend and I toughed it out till about 1 . . . but then decided that we hadn’t seen her do anything strong enough to make us hopeful that we were going to get anything better in whatever was still left of the show.
  8. Beer Dabbler. Minnesotans love their winter. So much so that they do things the rest of the country (the world?) would think are insane. Like hold outdoor Winter Carnivals in January, even (or especially) when the thermometer is well below freezing. Or hold outdoor beer festivals in the midst of that Winter Carnival. Done well, the Dabbler could have been a truly special event. Even on one of the coldest days of the year. There were lots of good breweries present. There was plenty of room in the park where the event was held. There were certainly lots of people who wanted to be there. Sadly, though, there were not enough volunteers to help ticketholders enter the park when the gates opened . . . and so the line still stretched for a full three blocks half an hour after the event began. And the Dabbler only used about a third of the actual space of the park . . . so all those people were crammed into not enough real estate. And, most amazingly, no one had bothered to actually clear the park’s walkways of snow . . . which, even for a Winter Carnival, seems like a major safety issue when you combine (a) 12-15″ of the frozen white stuff, (b) a few thousand people, (c) minimal post-nightfall lighting, and (d) what is effectively an open bar. Again, we left early. And, again, leaving early was a damned good idea.
  9. The new semester. January was (clearly) a month filled with challenges this year. But it was also the start of a new semester. And new semesters always begin — at least for me — with a certain spirit of hopefulness. Sure, the last few days before that first class meeting tend to be filled with sizable measures of stress and strain, as I try to get all the pieces in place so that Day One can come off smoothly. But there’s also something exciting about meeting a new group of students, watching them start to gel as a group, and seeing them start to wrestle with the course material in productive fashion. And, so far anyway (even more than a third of the way into February), I’m still feeling a large dose of that Day One optimism.

November notable nine

Nine days late, I know, but it’s been a busy week or so.

  1. Mocha. She’s still with us. Believe it or not. She’s had a couple of spells where she stopped eating for a few days, and I thought she was ready to go . . . but then she’s suddenly rediscovered the joy of kibble.
  2. In like a lamb, out like a frozen four-pack of lamb chops. Our slow arriving fall treated us mellow and fine deep into the second week of the month, when we had highs in the 60s . . . and then we got walloped with 6-10 inches of snow. By month’s end, the city had already declared its second snow emergency of the season, and we’d all forgotten what outside temperatures above freezing felt like.
  3. The American Studies Association conference. I got to escape some of those early sub-freezing days by flying off to San Antonio for the annual ASA meetings. And, as scholarly gatherings go, the ASA is routinely much more interesting and enjoyable than the annual ICA and NCA confabs. It didn’t hurt that I got to wear sandals for four days in mid-November without putting myself at risk of frostbite. I did struggle to find anything that resembles good beer in San Antonio . . . but the margaritas made up for that.
  4. Town Hall Tap. My fave brewpub in town anywhere opened up a new location at 48th and Chicago in south Minneapolis. And, not surprisingly, it appears to already be a huge success. The official opening happened at 3 pm on a Friday. By 4, the place was standing room only. By the time I left that night, the wait list for tables was about 45 minutes long. The opening was even sweeter for me, thanks to the unexpected pleasure of not one, but two different former undergrads — neither of whom I’d seen in years — spotting me and making a point of saying how much they’d enjoyed the classes they’d taken from me.
  5. The collapse of the Cowboys. It was not a good month to be a fan of Washington’s professional football team. An embarrassing loss to a bad team (the Vikings). A humiliating loss to a good team (the Eagles). A squeaker victory over a mediocre team (the Titans). On the other hand, it was delicious to watch the Cowboys self-destruct so thoroughly. Even more delicious to have The Onion capture the joy I felt so perfectly.
  6. Apple pie. Thanksgiving found me baking my very first ever pie. From scratch, no less. The filling, if I do say so myself, came out quite nicely. At least in terms of its taste. A little more cornstarch would probably have helped it firm up a bit. The crust, on the other hand, needed some serious help. Again, it tasted fine. At least insofar as it stayed intact, since the bottom crust basically disappeared during the baking process. Perhaps it melted into the filling. But there was little to no there there when it came time for dessert.
  7. A kind mention. Proud as I still am of Elvis After Elvis, I also don’t figure it gets much attention these days. It’s nearly fifteen years old (as a book, anyway), and so it’s well past the usual “freshness” date of an awful lot of scholarly volumes. So I was quite surprised to stumble across the brief shout-out for it in this interview.
  8. Bettye Lavette, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Wow. Just wow. Worth it for the opening track alone (a stunning cover of an otherwise little-played Beatles track called “The Word”), but the rest of the album is awfully sharp too.
  9. Mavis Staples. Also wow. Only this time for a live performance at The Cedar. If the opportunity presents itself to see her in concert, run (do not walk). You will not be disappointed. Promise.

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