November 2010


"Pastiche" stencil on campus bus stop shelter

Last Thursday afternoon was sunny, so after my Thinking and Writing students had spent about an hour working on the next draft of their semester-long research projects, we took our nature journals and headed toward athletic fields where the home team plays.

"Pastiche" stencil with shadow self-portrait

We’d read in Henry David Thoreau’s 1851 journal that he had heard great-horned owls calling this time of year, and the Keene State athletic fields aren’t far from the rail-trail where I’ve seen barred owls. We didn’t hear any owls in the slanting light of a late November afternoon, but we did see several crows, a pair of flitting juncos, and evidence of beavers.

My teaching colleagues and I have been talking a lot lately about outcome-based pedagogy, which is the practice of designing assignments and assessments focused on the intellectual end result you want to encourage. There was no official pedagogical outcome I tried to achieve in taking my students on a walk on Thursday: we walked because the weather was nice and the practice of keeping a nature journal gave us an excuse. Without an official outcome, we walked with no expectation of assessment: no, this sunny November day won’t be on the test, and there’s no quantifiable way of determining whether Taking a Walk has a measurable impact on a first-year student’s Thinking and Writing skills. In the absence of officially empirical evidence, however, I still believe that walking is good for writing and that being bipedal is good for the soul.

Krejci takes a shot

J and I had hoped for a fairytale finish to Saturday night’s hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings. After the Bruins clambered back from a three-goal deficit to tie the game in the third period, it all came down to a sudden-death shoot-out. It would have been storybook-perfect had the Bruins’ David Krejci scored the game-winning goal in his first game back after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, but he missed, and the Kings’ Michal Handzus made his shot: game over.

The game-deciding goal

After the game, it was cold as J and I walked to Government Center to catch a subway home, shivering in our hockey jerseys and autumn-weight jackets. As we walked home from our stop, the full moon beamed brilliantly overhead, as white as ice as it cast cold moonshadows of bare, twiggy branches on the sidewalks and pavement.

Already this season, we’ve been to three Bruins’ games, and they’ve lost all three times: twice in nail-biter shootouts, and once in regulation. All that was forgotten, though, in the crystal-bright light of an almost-winter moon as Orion in his spangled belt skated headlong across the frozen sky, stars glittering like sparks from his skate-blades.

Suburban turkeys

I suppose J and I could find our Thanksgiving meal simply by walking around the neighborhood in search of suburban turkeys, but we have a tradition of eating pasta for Thanksgiving. So tonight I went to the grocery store to do the weekly shopping.

Turkey trot

The store wasn’t frantic–I purposefully chose a time when I felt there wouldn’t be mobs of holiday shoppers–but the aisles were crowded with people taking their time as they loaded their carts. You could tell everyone was preparing meals they don’t regularly cook, as everyone was poring over labels and consulting with companions about their selections. One woman was on a cell phone making sure she got just the right kind of pumpkin puree; elsewhere, I overheard a pair of college-aged women (roommates?) wondering how they’d cook various side-dishes given their relative lack of cookware.

Fleeing

One item on my list was cold-cuts for the dogs’ Thanksgiving platter. In the past, J and I have prepared a plate of dog treats and sliced meats to give to the dogs as their Christmas present, and this year we decided to extend the tradition to Thanksgiving, too. So while other shoppers pored over a case of frozen turkeys trying to find just the right size and shape of bird, I spent a long time poring over packages of bologna, sliced turkey, and ham trying to find the smallest, cheapest package of each. Only after I’d made my selections did I look up and realize another shopper was watching me with a concerned look, worried I was a poor soul who could afford to eat only bologna sandwiches for Thanksgiving.

Yes, we really do have wild turkeys that live in suburban Newton, as evidenced here and here.

Ivied wall

During any month in which you’ve made a public promise to blog everyday, it’s a good idea to have at least one generic post on hand just in case you ever need to slap something up on a day when you’re too busy to write a proper post. This photograph of the ivy-clad wall of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, taken last month, is exactly that kind of post.

Yellow on red

These days, the most vivid fall foliage has already fallen, snagging in equally colorful shrubs.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Vivid.

An afternoon's work

Knowing that late autumn in New England can be fickle, last night when I went to the hardware store to buy more leaf bags, I also bought a 50 pound bag of ice-melt. It’s never too early to be prepared.

Rose of Sharon seed pods

It’s a simple fact of teaching I re-discover every year: the semester invariably follows its own rhythms, cycles, and moods. Yesterday at Keene State, my usually lonely office hour was devoted to two students who came to talk about their semester-long research projects without any prompting from me. After eleven weeks of researching and writing intentionally messy early drafts, we’re now turning into the backstretch of the semester: time to start revisiting those messy drafts, cutting redundancies, and tightening the organization. After eleven weeks of brainstorming, generating, and accumulating, now comes the season for revising, pruning, and tidying, and that always inspires a handful of early-bird students to seek me out, nervously wondering how they’ll ever get a handle on the big ideas they’ve been wrestling all semester.

Bluish

Every semester–every writing project–follows this life-cycle, and every semester I forget the predictable pattern. Somewhere around five weeks into the semester comes the first wave of disenchantment as students want to change topics and instructors want to change careers; somewhere around nine weeks into the semester, I’ve given up all hope of ever getting to the bottom of my omnipresent paper-piles. And then right about now, Week 12, as we head into the last month of the semester, something changes. The drafts are still messy, but one by one, I see students starting to take tentative ownership of their projects. Instead of me cajoling, pleading, and nagging in my draft comments–instead of me feeling like I’m spending more time thinking about their topics than some of them are–I see my students starting to find their own voices, their own perspectives, their own ideas.

Rose of Sharon seed pod

Novelists insist that if you work on a narrative long enough, the characters take on a life of their own, and I’ve seen the same thing happen with semester-long research topics. At a certain point of the semester, my students’ topics truly become “theirs.” Instead of asking in various roundabout ways “what I’m looking for” in their papers, right about now my students are starting to get a clearer sense of what they want to say. This isn’t an easy transition: ripening is always a tenuous moment. It can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to have ideas of your own, and it can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to express those ideas. It can be frightening, also, to realize that your research, while helpful, will not give you The Final Answer to the big questions you’re pondering.

Planetree leaves

It’s easy, too, for a nervous or inexperienced writing instructor to step in too quickly, to kill a student’s embryonic ideas with over-coddling. “Here, let me show you” or “Why don’t you do it this way” sound like helpful feedback or well-intentioned guidance, but these also might indicate an instructor who’s not willing to step back and watch as a student does her or his own intellectual heavy lifting. A coach can model and reinforce proper form, but she can’t enter the field of play. Ultimately it’s the players’ game, not the coach’s, and her proper place is on the sidelines, watching and shouting and hoping.

I’ve taught long enough to know that the biggest a-ha moments won’t happen until December, when the end of the semester is just weeks (or one week!) away. So far, the seeds of the semester have been gestating in the slow, steady heat of a temperate season, but come December, my students and their ideas will bloom like hothouse flowers forced into opening, never a moment too soon.

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