I’m Glad That’s Over


Sometimes I get ranty on my students. This happens, in particular, when they kvetch about having to take classes that are “stupid” because some courses “don’t have anything to do with what I’m going into.” Of course, were these students expressing their frustrations at the keyboard, that sentiment would read “tehy are stuppid cause they dont have any thing to due with WHat im goin in to.”

Whenever students act put out at having to take a range of classes, at having to study things they have no interest in, at wasting their time in classes like history, political science, and psychology when they just want to be nurses,

I have to clench my slapping hands firmly to my sides.

Every now and then, if I’m able to temper my reaction, I attempt thought correction (which is the agenda of every leftist Ivory Towered college professor, according to the Fox Newsian segment of the population). Calming my voice, I venture a, “You know, I viewed every class I ever took as an opportunity more than a burden. I always really try to remember that education, in any setting, on any subject, for any reason, is to be treasured. Specifically, if you are lucky enough to be in college, you shouldn’t start complaining that you are asked to take college classes. Of course, all of this is hard to see when you’re in the midst of it, so let me put it in more practical terms. Studies show that most people end up changing careers 5-7 times in their working lives. Thus, it is in your best interest to get the broadest base of education possible, so that you leave college equipped to take on any possible type of job that might put itself in front of you in the next 35 years. Certainly, you need very specific classes to become a nurse/phlebotomist/massage therapist/auto mechanic/firefighter. But what happens when your body gives out, or the economy becomes bad, and suddenly you are face with a change in career? What if you’ve only ever had phlebotomy-related classes? How are you going to sell books/dig graves/start a company/substitute teach/manage an office? More than knowing how to draw blood for the rest of your life, you need to know how to talk to people, how to communicate, how to think critically, how to analyze possibilities and pitfalls. See, the whole point here, with this college gig, is to lay down a foundation that can support you through all of life’s vagaries.”

And then I slap them.

With very small, gentle, invisible hands.

Here’s the thing, though: while I believe all of the above rant quite vehemently these days, from the comfortable perch of middle age, the truth is that when I was a college student, I got pissy about classes, too. In my defense, I will note I went to a liberal arts college, so the entire nature of my degree was broadly foundational. Moreover, it wasn’t that I was averse to the information in the classes I was required to take; it was that my brain was too busy processing Long Island Iced Teas to be up to the task of calculatin’ and hypothesizin’.

As a result, I still did my best to avoid classes in the maths and sciences–them mean classes that could hurt me.

However, the college hinged its degree awarding upon my having completed a variety of classes from all disciplines, so eventually, I had to sign up for numbers and theories and stuff, which seemed a shame when I still had Jane Austen to read.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my recoil from hardcore math and science; in fact, I was in such good company that the college had been forced to create and offer watered-down versions of some classes in these disciplines. I took Math 10 one semester…we connected dots and made stars and pretty shapes, and at some point, we may have added up all our dots and stars, which, since we got to use our fingers, was a breeze, so long as the answer never exceeded ten. Hey! Math was fun!

Fulfilling the science requirement was infinitely more taxing. I thought I had it sussed when I discovered a class nicknamed “Physics for Poets” existed. Hell, yea, methunk. I could dig a class where “torque” and “vector” were part of the iambic pentameter making up a sonnet. So great was my excitement, I bought pencils. I bought pencils.

But. Hmmm. How to put it?

One time John McEnroe hollered at a line judge that he was “the pits of the world.” I would like to assert here that Nikola Tesla might have been a line judge. ‘Cause physics was the pits of the world.

Now, I already knew physics blew the shutters right off my weathered Queen Anne of a brain. In high school, fast tracked in all subjects, I had taken honors physics. My teacher then had served as an artillery sergeant in Korea. As I sat in his classroom, holding my head in my hands, stifling a wail, he would march up and down the aisles, whacking desks and hollering about how only dummies couldn’t get this stuff. Clearly a dummy, I started going in before school to have him work through the homework problems with me. It never helped. I remained a cringing, cowering mass of confusion. But he did smile once when I make a joke about my having “zero capacitance,” so I called it a victory.

Woefully, the college physics experience bore out my college experience. While the professor was a good man, he lived on Planet Throbbing Brain, unaware that we peons down in the mines, attempting to extract his brilliance, were gasping for air.

Full disclosure requires that I also admit I took the class Pass/Fail, so all I needed was a “D” to get through. At first, I aimed for my “D” by skipping lots of classes, which did the trick quite neatly.

But then we had the first test, and its return marked the single time in my academic career that I held and beheld the letter “F.”

Muttering a word that started with “F,” I realized I had to start cranking, start going to class, start attending study groups, start reading the text book.

And I did. Even still, I was profoundly bewildered and lost. Fortunately, I became just enough less lost to randomly encounter a path labeled “D,” and I made it through the class–a little closer to an ulcer, a little less buoyant, a little less certain I was a fan of this “take a wide range of classes” concept.

Leaving me faintly nauseous and listing slightly to the right, college physics was the worst experience of my educational life.

Until I took Statistics.

The upshot of my story is this: it’s Thanksgiving time; I don’t like holidays; and at some point someone will probably ask me to articulate something that I’m grateful for this year. Since my attitude is bad, it’s best to have an answer prepared. A prepared answer will get me off the hook, and, with words pre-packaged, ready to trip off my tongue, I can sidestep the strife that would ensue from me hollering, “None of your damn business!” or “How come you never ask me this in April? Or September?”

So here’s what I’ve got, in the off chance we all end up going ’round the table and forcing out statements of gratitude:

“I’m really, really thankful I’ll never again have to take a college physics class. Now stuff that in your turkey and gobble it.”


*This post is a re-run from a few years ago. I still hate physics. I still hate the holidays. But at least this year, we’re having Thanksgiving at our house, sharing the day with one of my college friends, her husband, and their two sons. We shall not go around the table and announce things about gratitude, unless the words uttered are “Thank you for the refill on my wine.”

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Winter’s Advent

There’s a special lull in the rhythm of the semester when students are cranking away on big projects and readying themselves for the intensity that is the End of the Semester. The work isn’t flying in because they’re diligently, one hopes, doing the work. I’m in that lull right now, swinging and swaying and trailing my fingertips across the surface of the water as the rowboat drifts.

Ah, were it that relaxed. Rather, I view this lull as the only time I have to prep for next semester, which, in online teaching, means going into each course “shell” and getting sixteen weeks’ of content, quizzes, announcements, grade book items, and discussions ready for January. In courses that I’ve taught before, this is a fairly rote process of changing dates, swapping out stale activities, rearranging some due dates so as to create better flow, updating references, and the like. It takes some hours, but the meat of the class is already in place, having been copied from a previous semester.

A new online course creates a radically different time demand, however. With a new course, the “shell” is completely empty and makes the instructor staring into that space-loaded-with-potential feel like a person who’s just bought a parcel of land and now needs to design and build a house upon it before the first snowfall. The prospect is exciting and terrifying and a benefaction and a curse. So much is possible. Too much is possible. Only the application of myriad hours dotted with beads of sweat and a few fits of weeping can move the work forward, in lurching fashion, with a step forward and three back and a jump over here and a stumble over there.

Honestly, the only part of this that’s a complaint is the sheer amount of time it takes to frame up even a few metaphorical partition walls. I actually adore curriculum design; it may be my very favorite part of the job. But getting even the basics of an online class in place can take 60 hours, 70 hours, 100 hours, depending on how detailed the instructor is being during the prep phase. For me, I prefer to do a lot of the heavy lifting before the class begins; once the class goes live and has students in it, that’s a whole new dimension of work and demand, and I prefer to be focused on those needs rather than the “under construction” sign hanging on the class Content page.

Since I have two new online classes that start in January, in addition to three I’ve taught previously, I’ve been hammering away at getting one of them, Modern World Literature, constructed. Hence, my lull isn’t so very lull-ish, really. It’s been fun, however, to make some videos, write some quizzes, explain literary analysis. All of the time I’m putting into the one course means, UGH, that I haven’t yet thought about the second new course.

Enter my heroic colleague who offered me her version of that course. She’s been teaching it online for sometime, and it’s no skin off her beak to have her course content copied into my class shell. This type of course sharing has happened between other instructors on occasion, but I’ve never benefited from it before–partially because I like to design my own classes (isn’t that a significant part of teaching?) and partially because I’m a crusty loner (professionally speaking) who doesn’t consider it part of the job description to feign interest in colleagues while standing in the mail room. Seriously, I haven’t the faintest idea how to respond to a gaggle of 60-year-olds who went to the Cher concert at the convention center. When they chatter with excitement about the concert, I just stand there and wonder, “You guys really paid a bunch of money to hear Cher SING? I mean, did you know what you were getting into? Had you perhaps never heard her singing voice before?” Five minutes later, when they’re still going on about it and comparing who sat in which section and who bought a t-shirt, all I can think is, “I could have been reading a book all this time. For the past seven minutes of my life–which I’ll never get back–I could have been engaged in something that means something to me.”

So, you know, people haven’t exactly been tossing their classes at me; they’d have to find me first, and I’ve become pretty adept at a skulk. This time, though, the offer to share came, and it came from someone who is particularly special to me. I feel humbled by her generosity and as though I might need to add a 24″ x 28″ poster to the shrine for her I’ve erected in the corner of the dining room. I know she likes mustard, so I set out a new bowl of it each day next to the incense. One thing my guru always bellered before passing out was, “There. must. be. no. skin. on. the. top. of. the. mustard. in. a. shrine.” Daily fresh mustard it is.

But really. Isn’t her offer something to be thankful for? Isn’t her offer rather in the spirit of the season, when so little seems authentically to come from a place of giving?

Certainly, I’m going to switch up her class a fair bit and inject my voice and style into it, but just having the basics in place will save me maybe 30 hours, hours that I can now apply to things like hanging ornaments on a tree and baking nine million molasses cookies. I might even see my husband between now and January, thanks to her.

Let’s hope that goes well.

So my weekdays have a predictable routine, built around coffee, exercise, dealing with current teaching, and working ahead on next semester’s classes. This past weekend, with the U.S. having Thanksgiving, mixed up that schedule a bit, though. Although it’s hard to be completely present sometimes in Life That Is Not Work when one is an online teacher, since assignments and questions are flying in every minute of every day, I have to say I enjoyed the respite from thinking up quiz questions.

On Thanksgiving morning, Allegra ran the city’s Gobble Gallop 5K, as did a couple of my cousins and their kids, so the holiday started off with a feeling of family; these cousins are, in many ways, as much siblings as cousins to me, so any time spent in their orbit feels easy and natural.

Below, three of my cousins (brothers to each other) have a quick confab. I love this photo primarily as a study in comparisons and contrasts amongst siblings. Raised by the same people. Nurtured in the same environment. Sharing many of the same values. Profoundly different human beings.

As their choices in headgear indicate.

Next: here’s my girl. Every time she runs, she looks calm and happy and as though she’s not even trying. I gaze upon her, in awe, recalling how I used to walk most of the 1/2 “endurance run” during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. I was 31 before I ran a mile.

She is 12. She just goes. In so many ways, what was hard for me is easy for her. She’s like a healing balm spread over my own childhood wounds.

After the race, we packed up and drove four hours south, to the town where most of Byron’s family lives. Seeing the beauty of his sister as a mother, enjoying the charm of her two-year-old daughter, realizing how far my own children have come, well,

I hardly remembered that I’ve only written one opening announcement for Modern World Lit and still have 15 more to go.

A couple days after Thanksgiving, we celebrated both the two-year-old’s and Byron’s birthday (hers was last week; his is this week). More than anything, that gathering proved that the transition of seasons is upon us. The winds were frigid, and when we brought the camera in from the car to snap a picture of candles being blown out, this is what it managed:

It’s kind of like those being celebrated live in a dreamy, fuzzy, foggy world of dim lights and scents of sugar. I can get behind that.

Once the fog cleared, a few presents were handed around. If you see a two-year-old coming towards you clutching a Fisher Price blood pressure cuff and stethoscope, brace yourself. You’re about to get the physical of your life.

Because Byron’s parents had been suffering from the stomach flu (Happy Thanksgiving!) and were still feeling a little fragile from the afterglow of vomiting, we opted to drive back to Duluth a day early, which was lovely.

Because the seasonal transition had hit hard up in the Northwoods. A gorgeous blanket of white covered everything, and suddenly, while it’s still Autumn,

it’s winter.

So excited was I by the fun inherent in snow and breaking out the winter gear, I completely forgot to worry about my lack of author links on the Content page of Modern World Lit.

So occupied were we, heading to the sledding hills (bonus: neighbor boy!) and throwing ourselves down the slopes,

that the lack of an assignment sheet for the mid-term essay melted from my mind.

Turns out, the lull created by a long weekend was honored.

I am officially lulled.

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locally grown organics pole hiking Thanksgiving

Conversatin’ Locally

Two mornings ago, while Girl was at big-school and Niblet at little-school, Groomeo and I took an anniversarial, celabratory pole hike (basically, that means we were hiking but used ski poles, too; the arm workout gives the whole cardio aspect a boost. Personally, I enjoy it because I’m a much better skiier when there’s no snow involved). Being on the Superior Hiking Trail was, of course, lovely, but it got even funner once night-owl Jocelyn woke up enough to allow for an interchange of words.

The first grunts I managed telegraphed to Groom this random question: “So when you coached cross-country [running], and you guys would do ‘hill bounding’ in training, what exactly did that consist of?”

His subsequent demonstration–perkily leaping up a hillside to the sound of my muted applause–had the effect of re-injuring his groin muscle, a muscle that both he and I take very seriously. For the last few months, he’s been relying on yoga and biking in lieu of his usual daily running, just to give Groiny a break. But there, in the space of a hill bound, all his good takin’-it-easies were nullified.

As our hike got going, so did his groinal protestations. Being of Norwegian extraction, though, he did carry on for an hour and a half, stoically. It helped, too, that we had some conversatin’ to distract from the pain.

His opener was:

“So when we go over to Kids’ Godmamas’ house (our kids have the benefit of two godmothers, a lovely couple at whose commitment ceremony a few years ago we were privileged enough to speak a few words. I generally do that anyways, but it’s so nice to be invited to do what comes naturally) on Saturday night for their annual Friends’ Thanksgiving dinner, their request is that everyone’s food contribution be locally-grown, from not more than 50 miles away. With that in mind, and because neither of them hunts wild turkeys, we’ll all be having wild-rice-stuffed squash.”

Tripping over a rock but stopping the stumble with a well-placed pole, I mused on this. Of course, having a healty boho/crunchy strain in me, I could appreciate their choice. On the other hand, both Groom and I are a little tired of every concept, however noble, being packaged and marketed. Is it really different if it’s the books of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver that nudge our choices, instead of Wal-Mart and Costco? Is it always necessary to distill every life choice onto a bumper sticker?

Okay, okay. I suppose it is–sometimes. Buried somewhere in that last paragraph, though, there is a point to be taken. I’m just not going to disrupt the good vibrations of any conscientiously-composting, homemade-pesto-making, light-treading human peace symbols who might be reading this by pressing it home. If you disagree, calm yourselves by soaking some beans, lighting some incense, locking in your dreads, and getting the tie-dye pots a bubbling. Just make sure your incense and RIT dyes were made within 50 miles of your home, O righteous leftist consumers of the world.

Suffice it to say, these friends of ours are good, deliberate, thoughtful women. Their Friends’ Thanksgiving will be delicious and fresh, the food not contaminated with chemicals or petroleum residue. I like all that. I do.

“Hey, wait,” I finally replied to Groom, “don’t you always make some bready thing? How are you going to do that under those constraints? It’s not like the rocky clay of Northern Minnesota is waving back and forth with wheat stalks.”

“Yea,” ma man affirmed. “It’s a bit of a sticky wicket. Luckily, after a delicate negotiation with Godmama One, she and I reached a compromise: if I promise to only purchase hemp shirts for the next three years and wipe solely with Seventh Generation toilet paper, we can use wheat from a couple states over. The rest of the ingredients, we’re going to have to scrabble together.”

The brainstorming began. Noodly with gratitude that we wouldn’t find ourselves spending the next two days pounding dried yarrow into a wheat-substitute, we easily decided that local eggs and butter would be no sweat. Speaking of sweat, we started immediately collecting ours on that hike, mopping it into a handkerchief which we later wrang out, ultimately dehydrating the liquid until a small pile of crystals remained. We have salt. Locally-grown and emitted.

But yeast. Where to get it? A-ha!

A quick trip to the drugstore after the hike solved that one. We loitered near the Vagisil, and when women approached, we called them out, convincing them to donate some personal samples. After a bit of intimate scraping, the bread can now rise.

Indeed, eating locally is really an issue of ingenuity. The hike hocked up a list of ingredients, along with an unanticipated joke, created as I struggled with too-long poles, one that we can use to amuse the crowd at the Friends’ Thanksgiving table:

How many hearty Finns does it take to collapse a telescoping hiking pole?

Answer: None. It takes a Norwegian with a groin injury!

That’s the kind of material that kills up here in the Northwoods.

Okay, I’m off now to check the porch for our weekly delivery of butter and bottled milk from a nearby dairy. And even though we didn’t have a good year for basil, there’s pesto in the freezer that needs thawing before dinner. After that, I’ll carry out the compost–although if I see any bears out there, rooting through our old egg shells and carrot peelings, I fully intend to kill them and hoist them into the trunk of the car as an entree offering at the Friends’ Thanksgiving.

They are, after all, locally grown.

Unless, of course, we discover they were tranquilized this last summer in Yellowstone Park for getting too near tourists at Old Faithful and then transported a thousand miles away to Northern Minnesota where they’ve been ekeing out an existence in our compost bin. If that’s the case–frick!–the carcasses will just have to rot.

It’s a matter of principle.

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