Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Five

1. I finally took my first sailing lesson yesterday. I was so happy to be out on the water, even if we didn't have much wind. I'm still getting used to tacking,* although I blame the rudder extension, which makes it very difficult to maneuver one's body across the boat without getting gutted by the extension or beaned by the boom. I have two more lessons next week to get my first rating on the Tech boats (about the size of a Sunfish; fits three cozily). Then I'll have to find someplace near my parents' house to rent a boat while I'm gone for a couple of weeks.

2. Have I mentioned that my blog crush Michael Schaub is back at Bookslut? *sigh*

3. I'm not quite as done with my TA appointment as I thought I was. Now I have to respond to all the disgruntled students who didn't get the grade that they think they "deserve." And I can't fob them off on the professor; she is conveniently leaving the country this weekend.

4. My back was feeling much better---until I went sailing yesterday. Sitting on a hard bench with no back support wasn't the best idea. But I'm tired of putting off my summer plans while I wait for my back to heal. I thought I was finally out of the woods after I managed to sleep through a whole night---and much of the morning---on Wednesday. For the first time in weeks, I didn't wake up groggy and spacey and achy. But last night, the muscle relaxers failed me around 2 a.m., and I had to take some ibuprofen. So I've once again spent most of the day feeling listless and dizzy. I think tonight I'll ditch the muscle relaxer and see what a super-size (but doctor approved) dose of ibuprofen will do.

5. It's damn hot in Madison these days. And humid. Which is not helping with the listless feeling. All I really want to do is nap under the ceiling fan in the bedroom. I'm trying to keep the a/c off as much as possible, but I may have to give in if I want to get anything done at home. And I really, really need to clean.

*Tacking is changing direction while sailing upwind.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday Five

1. I finally went to the doctor about my back. I felt a lot better last week, but then the pain returned over the weekend and got steadily worse this week. The last few nights have been mostly sleepless, and last night was a little scary. I woke up at about 2 a.m., flat on my back in the middle of the bed and totally unable to move. If I tried to roll to the right---or even to move my right leg the slightest bit---I was seized by terrible muscle spasms. My left leg simply wouldn’t move at all. I lay there for about two hours, alternately screaming in pain and crying from the futility of it. I began to think that I’d have to call 911 to be rescued from my own bed. But then I remembered that the kitchen was piled with dishes and I have drifts of dog hair in the living room, and the pain of getting myself out of bed seemed to pale in comparison to the embarrassment of having strangers see my messy home.

I did eventually lever myself out of the bed, doped myself up on some oxycodone I had left from having a wisdom tooth out last summer, strapped a heating pad to my back, and curled up on the couch for a few hours of fitful sleep.

I went to the doctor this afternoon. After some very brief poke and prod, she declared that I had pulled a muscle, gave me a sheet of back stretches, and prescribed some heavy duty muscle relaxers. Some very heavy duty relaxers. The pharmacist actually called the doctor to doublecheck the dosage because she thought it was an error. So I’ll be spending the weekend very doped up. Should make grading exams very interesting.

2. Now, I know that for a doctor, a pulled muscle is just a routine diagnosis, but I do think that the doctor could have been a little more thorough and concerned, especially considering how distraught I was during the appointment. She seemed like she couldn’t shuttle me out fast enough so she could start the weekend.

3. I finished my first TA appointment yesterday. This past week was rough. The students got their midterms back on Monday, and the average was a low C, so I had a lot of unhappy campers. Of course, their poor performance was all because I’m an unfair grader. Among my favorite responses:
“I didn’t know I had to answer all the parts of the essay question. I thought they were just suggestions.”
“Don’t you know how discouraging it is to get so many points taken off?”
“I work really hard, so I deserve a better grade.”
“But I wrote so much. Don’t I get any credit for that?”
Apparently asking for accuracy and articulateness is just plain unreasonable. As is asking them to take notes in lecture (a whole other story).

Overall, I enjoyed TAing. I had some really intelligent, interesting, and fun students. Unfortunately, the students who are doing well and enjoying the class don’t come to office hours, so I’ve only been hearing the negative. (Although I did have one student who was very sweet and supportive after seeing how her fellow students were acting about their midterm grades.)

4. Just a few more days of grading---and some fun drugs to get my back in shape---and then maybe I can start my summer. I’ve got a stack of library books, piles of magazines, and a membership with the university sailing program. Oh, and some pesky prelims and proposals to work on.

5. I’ve made no progress on revising my proposal. In fact, I’m making the opposite of progress. The more I think about it, the more muddied the whole thing gets. And don’t bother telling me not to think about it. If you know me at all, you know that I’m not capable of not worrying an issue. I have all these disparate strands: development, popular culture, media, voluntourism, cross-cultural negotiation, concepts of poverty, neoliberalism, philanthrocapitalism, Millennium Villages Project, exchange. But I don’t have any kind of theoretical framework that ties all these strands into a coherent whole.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Three Down, One to Go

Well, only one more week of actually classes for the summer course, but I’ll have a full week’s worth of grading to do after the class ends: a pile of papers and a pile of finals.

I’m mostly enjoying being a teaching assistant. Even though the class is a summer course and most of the students are taking the course as a requirement---for some, it's the last requirement before graduating---the students have been keeping up with the work and really engaging with the class. I’ve had a couple of discussions that resembled dental work, especially this week, when we’ve been talking about a rather dense, difficult book. But with a little prodding, the students got into the discussion. I also took a little more control of the discussion this week, which definitely reduced the awkward silences and kept us more on track.

I have a few students who are more challenging than others. One boy is very enthusiastic---perhaps a little too enthusiastic---but not very bright. Before class, during break, after class, and during office hours---he never runs out of questions. Unfortunately, he proves that there really is such a thing as a dumb question. I feel like I’m spending way too much time repeating lecture material and reviewing the readings for him. I believe that he is doing the reading, but he doesn’t know how to read---at least, not in the academic sense. He doesn’t seem to know how to learn independently. And I’m not a learning specialist. I can tell him a few basic strategies: read everything twice, stop every 10-20 pages to make notes or summarize---but without any background in pedagogy or cognitive theory, I’m not sure how helpful I can be.

Another of the students has an identified learning disorder and struggles with writing essays. Despite giving her twice the time on the midterm, she still couldn’t complete the essay. I feel badly for her, but I don’t know how to help. Essay writing has always come easy for me. I’m sure I was probably taught how to write an essay at some point, but it’s been at least 20 years since I’ve really thought about the process. And at the same time that I want to help her, I also want to be reasonable in the accommodations that I make. I can’t give her unlimited time, and I can’t exempt her from the essay. Again, I’m not trained to handle students with learning disorders, but I’m still supposed to teach and grade them.

With both these students, I’m confronted with not only their learning challenges but so my own biases and snobbery. I’m no genius, but academic learning has always been relatively easy for me. I’ve never had to think about how to learn from a book or how to write a coherent essay. And although I know that we all have different types of intelligence and different ways of learning, I still tend to measure intelligence by my own biases. Even though I know that the girl who struggles to write an essay is not stupid, I still find myself thinking that a college student ought to be able to write a well-developed essay on demand. And that the student who has difficulty with identifying and remembering the important ideas in a reading just isn’t smart, when perhaps he was never taught how to read at an advanced level or simply learns better in other ways. I get frustrated not just because I can’t help these students, but because I can’t understand them. I’m not sure whether it is a failure of empathy or imagination. Perhaps its my own learning disorder that I can understand the students’ struggles on an intellectual level but I can’t grasp them on an affective level.

So what do you all think: At the university level, what responsibility do we have as teachers to understand and meet the students’ diverse learning needs?

Monday, June 08, 2009

On the Pile

Not a lot of reading has gotten done in the past two weeks. Between TAing and a bad back, I’ve mostly wanted to sack out on the couch with a heating pad and recorded episodes of “90210.” And what has gotten read has mostly been for TAing.

I’ve also posted this disclaimer before, but I tend to be a bit ADD about reading (and, well, about most things in life). So please don’t expect any sort of consistency from week to week.


* Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. LOVED. O’Neill mixes together a medley of contemporary lits’ worst sins---navel-gazing, mildly depressive narrator; post-9/11 ennui; Babelesque ethnic diversity; therapy as narrative device---and makes them not only tolerable, but enjoyable. His quick pace is largely to credit for O’Neill’s ability to explore disaffection without dragging the reader down into the narrator’s interior muck. A few plot points strain credulity, and the ending feels a bit overly resolved. But these are minor flaws in an overall highly successful novel.

* King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. Again, a disclaimer: I finished this in the grad school sense of finished; as in, I finished as much as I needed to for the purpose at hand and in the time available. I still haven’t entirely shaken my obsessive need to read all books from cover to cover, but I’m getting better at forcing myself to move on, if only as a survival mechanism.

In any case, I’m of two minds about King Leopold’s Ghost. As a general audience book, which is how it was intended, I think it is an engaging and accessible account of an under-reported historical episode: the colonization of the Congo. Hochschild weaves a compelling narrative through a series of characters: the megomaniacal King Leopold; the anti-hero Henry Morgan Stanley; the tragic, and tragically flawed, men who fought against Leopold; the status-obsessed dupes and sociopathic footsoldiers who enabled Leopold’s brutal regime. But as an academic text, it has significant flaws. Hochschild’s emphasis of individual characters and amateur psychoanalysis makes for compelling reading, but obscures the broader processes that make Leopold’s colonial ambition not only imaginable but also achievable. And a coherent narrative leaves little room for dealing with ambiguities, such as the contested numbers of fatalities and the role of missionaries in the colonial project.

* Nuer Dilemmas by Sharon Hutchinson. Same disclaimer about the meaning of “finished.” And one of these days, I really will read all of this, if only because my advisor wrote it. As ethnographies go, Nuer Dilemmas is accessible and readable, although dense with detail. The intricacies of Nuer cattle relations can be mind boggling if you haven’t lived with them for many years. And while I appreciate that Hutchinson was writing at the height of the reflexive moment, I could have done with less intrusion by the author.

Now Reading

* Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For the course, but I’m excited to read a novel by an African writer. I’m embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of African literature beyond Chinua Achebe.

* The Turnaround by George Pelecanos. So I meant to get another book by Richard Price, after finally reading---and enjoying---the much hyped Lush Life. But I got the names mixed up and bought this book by Pelecanos instead. But I have been meaning to read Pelecanos; he’s a writer and producer on The Wire, one of the best-written (and produced and acted and everything else) television shows ever. In any case, I’m hooked into the story about the consequences of a violent attack that was steeped in the racial tensions of 1970s DC.

* A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Conner. So, turns out that I have read some Flannery O'Conner---or, at least, I'd previously read the title story in this collection. I just forgot that I had read the story.

Added to the Pile

* More prelims reading: Curing Their Ills by Megan Vaughan, Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock, and Toward a Political Economy of Development, edited by Robert Bates.

* Some fun---or, at least, optional---social science reading: Hollywood by Hortense Powdermaker and Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom by W. Lance Bennett and Martha Feldman.

* And some novels: City of Thieves by David Benioff, The Scenic Route by Binnie Kirshenbaum, and The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

Wish List

* The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

* Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

* My Father’s Tears and Other Stories by John Updike

* A Short History of the American Stomach by Frederick Kaufman

* The Sugar House by Laura Lippman

* Towelhead by Alicia Erian

* The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

Friday, June 05, 2009

Friday Five

1. TAing is hard. Especially TAing for an intensive summer course. Two and one half hours of lecture in the morning, prep work and office hours, then an hour of discussion in the afternoon. Plus more prep work and reading when I get home. I'm exhausted every day. And then I spend all weekend reading and prepping for the next week. This weekend I have the added fun of reviewing their paper proposals, preparing for my guest lecture next week, and fielding inane questions about Monday's midterm: "How should I study for the test?" Um, you should review the detailed study guide that I gave you. Lord. And I have a feeling I'll have lots of unhappy campers coming to my office hours next week when they get back their proposals with a "Not acceptable. Redo." comment. Because despite specifically telling them---in the syllabus and during discussion---that they needed to submit a 3-5 sentence summary that included a specific research question, at least half of them turned in a vague one sentence proposal along the lines of "I plan to write about AIDS in Southern Africa." Ugh. And at least half of them turned in the proposal late. Also, didn't really think that I needed to specify that the proposal should be type written, but apparently I did.

2. But then just when I had decided that I'd had enough of lame excuses and half-assed work, the universe decided to remind me that we all have our off days. I had a meeting this morning with the professor teaching the course to go over the midterm exam questions. I got a late start to the day, then mixed up the bus schedule, and missed the bus I should have taken. Or at least I thought I had missed it, so I went to get a different bus. And while waiting for that one, I saw the bus I wanted go by. Then the one I was waiting for was late. I decided I could save some time by transfering to a second bus along the way, but then got mixed up on the bus routes and wound up missing the second bus---even though the driver absolutely saw me running to catch the bus. Bastard. And in the end I was almost 20 minutes late for my meeting, with the lame excuse that I got mixed up on the bus routes.

3. An update on my back, because I know you've been losing sleep over this: Better but still not great. I still get stiff and sore if I sit for too long, and I have a shooting pain down my left buttock. But I'm not having to hyperdose on ibuprofen to get through the day. So, improvement. But still frustrating because I haven't been able to start sailing lessons or get back into running.

4. I think Rowen, however, may be working some kind of voodoo to keep my back sore because the one thing that seems to help the most is long, gentle walks, particularly along the soft, dirt path at the dog p-a-r-k. We've been going there frequently.

5. We're supposed to have a rainy weekend, although we were supposed to have a rainy afternoon today and that never materialized. Which had I known, I would have organized some Terrace time. Although it's just as well that I came home, because I really was exhausted today and took two naps this afternoon. But anyway, I'm actually hoping for rain this weekend because in addition to all the TA work I need to do, I also have several craft projects that I want to work on, including knitting a blanket and sweater for my nephew (and he's growing like a weed---he's already off the height charts!) and sewing a tote bag for myself. Of course, I also have a pile of novels---including a new mystery novel that I bought this afternoon---and magazines, and a weekend curled up with a pile of non-academic reading sounds really nice. Even though, really, I'll be spending my weekend with the Nuer and their dilemmas. Bah.