Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Hallowe'en

The kids went about the neighborhood this past weekend (our neightborhood celebrated Halloweekend, the bourgie offshoot of Halloween), their first time doing the ol' Trick or Treat. Rambunctious (on left) was a triceratops, which made him extraordinarily happy after having seen a real triceratops skeleton at the dino exhibit earlier this fall. At first, it was just "ceratops," but after a good bit of practice, he's got the whole latinate monstrosity in his lexicon.

Imperia was, as you may be able to tell from the picture, a lion...particularly appropriate for she who is empress of the universe. If we're going to dress as something lesser than ourselves, we might as well be queen of the jungle, mightn't we?

Anyway, Monday was also their third birthday, so Sunday we also had a birthday party, where the kids also, for a time, wore their costumes, which will make about twenty days in the last month in which they were worn. As you may guess, there's been a bit of roaring around our home of late.

As for me? Well, let's just offer up my vampire name, as seen at Ink and Incapability:
Your Vampire Name Is...

Hierophant of the Underworld


I spent almost the entire day today doing work for one of the more important committees in the department, the one that reviews and evaluates the annual review files for the entire faculty.

Earlier this summer, I produced my own first full file for this committee to review...it didn't occur to me how much effort would be required to review all of these files...reading over the new published work, examining all of the syllabi for what evidence they may contain of excellent or subpar teaching, reading each student evaluation, and on and on.

Well, maybe this did occur to me, but what really was a surprise was how much work transferring this information into a report wopuld require, copying all of those titles, transcribing indicative student remarks, poring over the statistical reports of those evaluations.

I worked all day on this and only finished two files. My eyes hurt.

But at least this means that next week I can work on my own writing, completing what will go into my file for next year, which, of course, someone else will have to read...

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's not you, it's me...

Last night, I did something I'd never had to do before...

I sent out rejection letters.

As readers of the old blog know, I'm working on a book collection in a field obliquely related to primary research field, but quite germaine to my teaching and a progressive vision of the academy. After months of collecting just-enough abstracts and papers to come up with a full slate of contributions, my co-editor and I made some decisions yesterday on what was in, what was out, and what we wanted to see more of to make a final decision.

For those pieces that we decided against (to say "rejected" even now seems harsh, but accurate), I had the unenviable task of notifying the authors of our decision. Though those pieces ranged from the "not-right-for-us" to the "you-call-this-writing?" those notes took on too much familiar language: "thank you for offering us your work," and "good luck in finding a venue for the piece," and "we received much fine scholarship."

In one case, I sent back some reader's notes, but in a couple of cases, my (unwritten) response was less charitable, and so I indicated very little about my actual opinion in the note.

I know that bad news is difficult to deliver anyway, but in some ways, my most euphemistic responses almost seem dishonest...Is it right to avoid telling someone that their work has a loong way to go before it should find its way into print? Or should I let the vagaries of the publishing market send its own message, in the event that someone else with different interests and agendas finds the work compelling enough to publish?

At the very least, I know that I shall read those rejection slips that come my way with a slightly different eye.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blogger update and help

So by now, I'm settling into Blogger's slightly more user-friendly but less flexible format, and am getting close to a decision to stay here, but I have a few questions for those who have been on blogger for a while...
  • How bad is the spam problem once you're more established?
  • Do you do all of the visual layout modifications yourself, or has someone helped you renew the look of your blog...If the latter, any recommendations for someone who can help me revise the look of this fairly ugly template?
  • How frequently does blogger go down and leave you blogless?
Any feedback would be great.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Fall Day on the Farm

We didn't get to go to anything like this last year, but this year we enjoyed "Kids day at the farm" at a local place...the set up was pretty sweet...they had clearly been doing a good business with this for years, since they had a pretty elaborate haunted house set up on one side of the lane, and a kids' playground on the other--there was a little hay maze, this climbing pile, a trampoline, a small petting zoo, a little tractor ride, and larger hayride (oddly, without any hay) and a pumpkin patch for each child to take one home.

We went with a friend and her two boys-- 2 1/2 and almost 1--as well as my old friend and his new flame (who is just darling). The kids had fun there and at home decorating their pumpkins. At the end of the morning trip, we had hoped to snag a picnic table and lunch there, but the picnic tables were all reserved, and we had to eat out of the back of the minivan, which worked well enough...another advantage of the minivan, I guess.

What struck me most as I snapped some of these shots was how gorgeous, how perfect this day was...how it was not just autumn, but thoroughly autumnal, and how while I was trying to capture this on digital film, the kids were just living in it. In the shot to the left, Rambunctious probably isn't thinking, "Ah! This is what fall is supposed to be like." He's probably thinking, "I up HIGH!" You sure are, buddy.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Early on last fall, as I was adjusting to the new culture of BRU, I was shocked by the number of student disappearances from my classroom--some formal drops, others just, well, less formal. A colleague informed me that attrition was part of the game here, and that a lenient withdraw policy and a town party culture meant that some students over registered and had planned to drop a course, while others just don't make it through here (our 6-year graduate rate is a bit wanting as well).

So I had begun to take as a given that between 20 and 25% of my initial enrollments in the survey was normal. Of course there were patterns...before the first paper, and after the return of that paper and the very subsequent midterm, more students would disappear than at more random times, but this was all logical within the framework that attrition happens here.

I found out yesterday from someone who knows, but who isn't interested in making anything of it, necessarily, that my survey course (which I've taught every semester since I've been here), has a higher drop rate than anyone else's. This has me understandably concerned, but the following factors are in play:
  • My evaluations are, not to be modest, very good. In the three sections of this course I taught, the average response to a rating of my teaching effectiveness was a 4.85 out of 5, and the rating of the course was a 4.74 out of 5, both exceeding the 80th percentile for the university (the former is around 90th percentile, but I'm bragging a bit here). Students, generally, don't hate me.
  • I am, however, not an "easy" professor. Just as much as I take pride in my high ratings on my evaluations, I also take pride in my low scores on the easiness scale on RMP, (2.3). This is, as I see it the goal of good teaching...to be as difficult and challenging as possible without alienating the students.
  • I assign more work than most survey course require, specifically, the two papers, which are not simply close reading papers. I ask them to engage key terms and ideally advance a coherent argument, skills that are sorely lacking in many of the students who enter my class. The first paper comes early in the semester which is also an anomaly. While written page requirements are not in place for this level of course, I believe it's important for there to be formal writing in every English class at the university level (if not here, where?). I also believe that if I am going to push my students beyond their current abilities, I cannot simply give them one shot at it. Students often need the second paper to really produce better work than they're used to producing. But the challenge of the first paper is one of the key reasons so many drop in the first place.
  • I visibly take attendance and rigorous enforce the attendance policy. Granted, students may miss up to 3 full weeks of class without penalty (besides missed work), but some students seem to be intimidated by that, and after missing a week of classes for reasons good and bad, some students panic and disappear.
It is entirely possible that this is just what happens in a high enrollment course with a challenging professor and lots of options for other faculty (who are by all indications also facilitating excellent classroom experiences)...

Do I cut back on the work load (which is admittedly higher than the norm) at what I believe is the expense of student learning?

Do I write off the attrition (which isn't raising eyebrows yet, but may over time) as the inevitable effect of being unyielding in my commitment to a rigorous classroom?

Are there intermediate steps that I can take?


Monday, October 23, 2006


Reason #1 for the Pseudonym: Of course, as many of you know, Horace, or at least the popular gloss on Horace, provides the title for the blog--that the purpose of poetry is "to delight and to instruct" . . . or some such thing. I don't do the Latin so well...

Of course, Horace is not only talking about poetry, but more specifically about dramatic poetry. On the front page of my introduction to drama syllabus (which hasn't been dusted off in some years now, to my chagrin), I have several quotes detailing the purpose of the dramatic arts, and Horace's pithy doctrine has always struck me as both elegantly balanced and comprehensive.

Reason #2: In my second year of college, I lived on a honors floor in a dorm that featured all sorts of silly dorm events, where one floor hosted another for a theme party or what have you--the theme revolved around a mocktail, created and named by the floor. In this particular year, our theme was something vaguely mobster oriented, and since there was an inordinate number of Jewish students on the floor, we hooked onto the idea of a Jewish mob. We were the Goldstein crime family, and we each had our family name. I was in a "celebrate childhood" phase, all coloring books and Winnie-the-pooh and Disney movies, and so when Asked to pick a crime family henchman name, of course I gravitated to the henchmen of one of the best Disney villains available, Cruella De Vil. Her goons, Horace and Jasper became my source, and, confused about which was the skinny one (I was 5'11" and 127 lbs at the time, so I wanted the skinny one), I chose Horace. I am even sadderto find out that the live-action Jasper was played by the unparalleled Hugh Laurie of House, M.D. and formerly Blackadder fame. Nonetheless, my friend Sue, whom I met on that on that dorm hall way, still calls me Horace to this day.

Reason #3: Horace is of course the cognate of Horatio, the name of perhaps the most overlooked, and to me, fascinating character of that Danish play...In fact, I have a theory, or perhaps just a production idea for that play which features Horatio as the play's unreliable narrator. My version of play opens on the final scene, with Horatio surveying the carnage, just as Fortinbras and his army arrive. Fortinbras asks what the hell happened, to which Horatio replies:
Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more;
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.

It's the "presently perform'd" that I always latch onto, and which has me imagining Horatio removing the crowns and rapiers from the dead bodies, and casting the soldiers as his actors (with Fortinbras as Claudius, of course). The lights go down, and quickly come up again on 1.1, with Horatio essentially directing the action throughout...he would never leave the stage, then, becoming Hamlet's unreliable narrator. Someday I'll write up a little article on this, my pet theory.

So...Call me Horace. I'll see you around the internets, dear reader.

I'm Anonymous!

Sort of...

Those of you who knew me from RC&D almost certainly know plenty about me, and I'm not entirely interested in a secretive anonymity...I maintained the named blog for 3 years, and am fairly comfortable with readers knowing who I am.

That said, I'd prefer that the blog not be linked with my name so obviously that anyone searching my name or my academic affiliation could find this blog too easily. So I'm taking on the sort of pseudonymous identity that can be linked with any amount of searching to my real-world identity.

But for this space, I'll create a renamed dramatis personae:

Horace: Our narrator, an assistant professor of English at By-the-River University (BRU). I teach modern drama, British Lit, and gender studies. I am a teacher, writer, performer (mostly in the classroom), progressive, and feminist. This is my second year at BRU after thirteen years inside the beltway (you know, the one that thinks it's so important that it doesn't feel the need to identify itself in any other way). I'll explain the pseudonym (beyond the obvious) later.

Willow: My spouse is a writer--working on a novel and a short story collection--and a graduate student (after my hire) at BRU. She is smart and talented, and spent most of her life in and around the same beltway, where she also taught high school English for six years. We met while completing our MA degrees in English. We are parents to...

Imperia and Rambunctious: Our three-year-old twins. Imperia is talkative, obsessed with pinkpurpleandred (despite some perfunctory parental protests), and more than a little bossy. Her charm is complemented and her power is enhanced by the felicitous inheritance of her mother's smile. Rambunctious is also talkative, but less so. He likes books, firetrucks, Curious George, balls of all sorts, and "Copacabana." I may occasionally link to the twins' website, which has their real names and cute pictures.

The cast may grow, but we'll start there.