Month: August 2006

Professionalism Lost

Well, I blew it. And I’m happy to have gotten that out of the way.

I totally failed to set the example today, and I did it at the one moment in class where I’m most expected to be all formal and leaderly and professional.

One of my FYC sections today was listless and confused and needed prompting and guidance on just about every single task, so by the time I taught the next section, I was more than a little impatient, punchy, and flippant. One section’s leaving when the next section starts coming in, and I’m immediately inundated with the same questions about how to turn in their work that the last section had asked, after I’d both (1) put the homework assignment up on the course site and (2) gone over it at the end of the previous class. And since they’re cadets and getting inspected all the time and jacked up for the tiniest mistake or inconsistency, they’re super-focused on detail.

So they’re like, “Sir, which folder do we put the work in to turn it in? Sir, do you want our names on the folders? Sir, should we put our names on a computer-printed name tape or just hand-write them? Sir, is pencil OK, or can we write our names in pen? Sir, where on the folder do you want us to write our names? Is it OK to write our names on the inside, sir?” And of course some of it was a pile-on, in that sort of gleeful way they have of seeing just how much they can mess with the system while not technically doing anything that would get them in trouble.

Like for example: when they’re outside, cadets are required to salute every officer they pass; officers are required to return the salute. (Yet another reason I’m glad I’m civilian faculty.) When officers pass cadets in a group or in a formation, the group or formation salutes as a whole, and the officer is only required to return the single en masse salute. Can you guess what habit cadets have developed? O yes. If there’s sufficient space, whenever cadets traveling one way in a group spot an approaching officer, they immediately disperse while maintaining their direction of travel — so the officer is required to return many salutes instead of one.

I love it, and I totally and wholeheartedly approve. Except, y’know, when I’m the victim, as with the pile-on I described. I started out by trying to be the easygoing candy civilian instructor — “No, just write your name anywhere, pen or pencil is fine” — answering all the questions, and then a couple of the jokers decided to tweak things a bit more: “Sir, cursive or print?” And I couldn’t not be the smartass in response, and failing to take into account the fact that they’d just had two months of military training, I sarcastically replied, “Morse code, Cadet.”

And I’m sure you know what the mock-dutiful response was, with stifled smirks all around.

“Roger that, sir.” And they started to do it.

And seeing those stifled smirks was all it took for me to realize I was about to receive a section’s worth of portfolios with names rendered in dots and dashes, so I tried to one-up: “Cancel that, Cadet. I want your names in Braille.”

Totally straight face: “Should we erase the morse code, sir?”

The 14:54:59 on the clock turned to 14:55:00, saving me from having to reply, though not from what followed. The section marcher — one of the instigators — called the classroom to attention and saluted and delivered his report. I returned his salute, doing my best not to smile. But he saw me holding it back and started grinning himself, and that was all it took for me to snort and break up laughing in mid-salute.

Yeah, I’ll be the first to confess: I am most definitely not officer material. But I was pretty pleased with myself when the class finished and one of the cadets said over his shoulder as he left: “Good class, sir.”

There Will Be Barf

Ah, the pleasures of domesticity. Putting clothes in closets. Hanging pictures. Crossing the Hudson River to find a pet supply store that carries Hill’s Science Diet for Tink and Zeugma.

It was one of those deals where I bought two ridiculously huge bags so I wouldn’t have to make the trip again for a while, and as a bonus they gave me a coupon and a couple teeny-tiny cans of soft food too. So the girls were good tonight, non-whiny and no hisses or fits, and I opened up one of the teeny-tiny cans and split it between them.

Tink showed me why she’s the one who barfs. Head down, in the bowl, non-stop until it’s gone. Like she’s in a race. We’re talking uninterrupted sound of chewing and swallowing here; food intake like a gas-powered Troy-Bilt wood chipper. Non-stop gurgitation.

Across the kitchen, Zeugma sniffs the food, licks it, chews it a bit, tries a paw, looks around, takes another couple bites.

Tink: chomp chomp chomp. Chomp chomp chomp chomp chomp.

And that’s the way it is generally. Zeugma’s shy and fastidious; Tink has a habit of using the box and not stopping to brush the litter over it with her paw. Zeugma gives me the stare; Tink yawps and yowls.

My own little feline id and superego.

Compromising OPSEC

It’s a little weird to realize there are probably things happening around campus (or, as the military faculty say, around post) that I really, really shouldn’t be blogging about because they’re security concerns. So: suffice to say that the intersection of higher education and the Army produces some interesting moments, particularly when there are occasional projected official anti-terrorism excercises including staged “hostage events” and briefings on “hopefully notional” explosions.

I’m getting accustomed to the occasional loud noises here as cadets engage in the military component of their educations, but some of the stuff here still gives me pause.

In other news, Verizon has managed to foul things up yet again, and dropped my home DSL connection. They admit it’s their mistake, and they’re giving me two months’ free DSL by way of apology, but it’s going to be a few days until they get things working and I once again have internet access from home — so if you’ve tried to e-mail me and had it bounced back, now you know why. Grr.

Regimentation, Part 3

I’ve just finished grading and handing back the first in-class writing. Among my West Point sections of first-year composition, the grades ran the gamut from F to A minus, with the average somewhere around 74%, just below a middle C. That’s about four percentage points lower than the first-assignment average in my FYC classes elsewhere, although those elsewhere grades were much more tightly clustered around the C plus / B minus range. Part of that I ascribe to the fact that this was an in-class one-shot rather than an out-of-class revised essay, so my slow composers were at a disadvantage: the overwhelming majority of essays were four or five paragraphs long, with quite a few clocking in at three paragraphs, and only two or three going longer with any substantial development.

And yes, I gave Fs on their first essays; essays which I likely would have given a C minus at my previous institution. Now, these were half-credit Fs rather than zeroes, but they were Fs nonetheless, and they were Fs for a single reason: the cadet failed to meet the requirements of the writing prompt. The prompt, in nuce, was this:

The Army has a number of very specific values to which it attaches rhetorical importance (West Point’s “Duty, Honor, Country”; the four Cs of courage, competence, candor, and commitment; the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage). Come up with your own quality, one that people might not ordinarily associate with the Army, and define it at length and make an argument for its significance at West Point.

Some of the qualities cadets chose might surprise: there were essays on humor, on kindness, and more than a few on humility. But the essays that received Fs were universally a product of failure to read closely: in every case, the cadet who failed defined and argued for the importance of an already-extant Army value or quality, rather than coming up with one of his own. And that was the reason for the failing grade.

Tough? By the standards of my teacherly experience, yes.


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The Exit Exam

For the past eight years, I’ve taught composition classes where students turn in final portfolios rather than taking a final exam. That changes this year: at West Point, cadets are required to compose a final three-hour timed writing during exam week, called a Term End Examination essay, or TEE. (The Army loves its acronyms.) The composition TEE is an odd and interesting thing, because the department writing program’s rhetoric is ostensibly so invested in the writing-as-process revision-based model, and then we go and put a one-shot do-or-die capstone on it. Furthermore, the cadet TEEs are randomly and anonymously group-graded by three faculty members each.

As faculty, we’ve done grade norming, and it’s good to know that we’re all pretty much within a half grade point of one another when it comes to student essays: standards are clear and consistent. But being a portfolio person, I felt some unease looking forward to the TEE, so I assigned an early practice-run timed in-class graded writing exercise today. Interesting results, and a much wider range of apparent writerly skill than I’m used to seeing with drafts and revisions — which means I’m going to need to offer my students some timed test-taking essay-writing strategies.

Which is where you come in, dear reader: I’d like to ask you for your help. What are the most successful strategies and pieces of advice you’ve been able to offer your students for writing under time constraints? Certainly, the process approach is an invaluable and welcome luxury — but what best advice might I offer my cadets when that approach is not an option?

The format is fairly consistent: given three hours and a specific audience, read a ten-page article and draft an argument that in some way responds to that article, usually proposing some course of action. And in such a format, I’m horribly inexpert, and hoping for guidance: in such situations, what do you offer students that helps them to succeed?

Regimentation, Part 2

It’s common practice, as far as I know, for colleges to alternate 50-minute M/W/F classes with 75-minute Tu/Th classes. The Point is a little different, and has an elaborate alternating class-day schedule of 55-minute classes. Cadets are (over-)scheduled from early morning formation, physical training, and meals through business-day class times into athletics practices, evening meals, and mandatory evening study times — and, over the past two afternoons, I’ve just met my sections.

They’re amazing. They’re forthright. They volunteer, and offer information in response to questions without needing to be called upon. And, yes, even this early, they’re pushing the limits, testing the boundaries, trying to see if they can punch my buttons, and I’m happy about that.

One of the questions I asked in my initial writing survey exercise was this: “What rumors have you heard about this class?” There’s a (likely self-fulfilling) persistent rumor among the Corps of Cadets that all instructors fail every cadet’s first essay assignment, and so the best course of action for said assignment is to blow it off and not waste any time on it. Sure enough, a couple cadets mentioned that rumor, and characterized it as advice from senior cadets in relation to the ubiquitous overscheduling. Which makes me wonder: have the senior cadets dutifully read their Foucault and decided to exercise Power at the capillary level in their advice to plebes? Is this brilliantly counter-curricular counter-hegemony?

Sure, maybe I’m overthinking things. But consider the circumstances: every class period begins with the cadet section marcher calling the class to attention and rendering the report (“Cadets Smith and Snuffy unaccounted for, Sir”), at which point I come to the position of attention, return the salute, and we start. Cadets live together, and fully know how overscheduled they are: in fact, one of my duties is to log on to the computerized attendance management system each day and note who was absent, late, or departed early. The information goes to the cadet chain of command in the cadet barracks, who deal with it wholly out of my sight — which is actually quite refreshing, and makes matters much easier for me. The cadet chain of command knows which absences are excused (sports, medical) and which are unexcused, and the cadets know they have to arrange with me ahead of time to make up missed work. No end-of-semester tales of heartbreak and woe.

Today, two cadets were absent: one I knew ahead of time had already resigned from the Academy, and the other was unaccounted for. I appointed my section marcher when she walked into the classroom at 2:46 (somewhat arbitarily: she asked me if she had missed any pre-first-day homework, and I figured if she was asking me that, she likely had her act together), and by 2:54, she had the procedures down and had taken a backup attendance sheet for me (standard practice for section marchers), and at the :00 mark of 2:55, she called the section to Attention and delivered the report (nearly) flawlessly.

Essentially, they’ve shown me their awareness of the strictures and conventions and boundaries within which they must live, and then their subsequent actions have done everything possible to call into question and test those boundaries. One cadet’s answer to my question about rumors they’ve heard about the course: “I hear that classes are mostly conducted in English.” Humor? Or a subtle attempt to correct me for asking cadets to violate the Army value of Loyalty by ratting on one another?

It’s gonna be an interesting semester.

The Semester Starts

Saturday was “A-Day” (acceptance day), when new cadets finished Cadet Basic Training and officially became plebes. Upperclassmen roamed the tiny village of Highland Falls in uniform today with their families. Classes start tomorrow, and I’m still busy getting settled in the house and tweaking the syllabus.

On a good note, a cadet from my new home department won recognition from both the military and Congress for his recent paper strongly critiquing the Army’s misguided “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuality — which, to me, offers a hopeful reinforcement of the stance on academic freedom that I’ve seen at this military institution.

The Grind

Left to unpack: five boxes of clothes. Thirty-six boxes of books. Four tall boxes of kitchen stuff. Office files. Various components of the scholarly apparatus.

Either missing or still packed in some mis-labeled box by those puckishly humorous movers: my drill, which is a surprisingly inconvenient thing to be without when one moves. Two lampshades. Various cables (USB, power, Firewire, CAT-5) for the computer.

Right now, all my efforts at home are wholly and hugely material, moving boxes around and unpacking them and such. None of my books are up on shelves, and my desk isn’t yet in a workable arrangement: right now, it feels like there’s very little of the life of the mind for me in my off-the-clock time. By contrast, all my activity at The Job (which is a genuinely 8-to-4 experience) is on the intellectual side, aside from the odd helicopter ride or five-hour hike around the Revolutionary War era campus fortifications.

It’s not a split I particularly like. So: today, it’s kitchen stuff and books and the scholarly apparatus, grocery shopping, laundry, and if I’m good and work hard and well, my reward will be that I get to take my stereo out of boxes and put it together. My location — blocked from the north by Storm King mountain and NYC too far to the south — makes it so that the heavy pop rotation MTV affiliate radio station is the only one I can receive clearly, and I so totally miss NPR.