I hope that last year some of you followed my writing adventures with my friends Kerri ("Libby") Flinchbaugh and Laura ("Mariposa") Benton. 3 friends, 30 things, 90 stories had us writing throughout April 2012, crafting short pieces of poetry and prose in response to daily prompts.
Well, we're at it again. This year we've brought another friend ("Dobject") on board. 4 friends, 30 things, 120 stories will take us through June as we write on various people, places, and things. I hope you'll follow along, and that you'll respond in the comments. Writing is nothing without readers, and we sincerely want to know what you all think. Please feel free to write along with us; collaborative, constrained writing is tremendous fun and a wonderful creative outlet.
For what it's worth, I do plan on posting more regularly here during the summer...I've got a good number of interesting articles I'm working on finishing up and I'm prepping for a couple of fun classes (a heavily problem-based iteration of linear algebra and my first-ever run-through with HON 479). Lots to talk about.
Sunday, June 02, 2013
Thursday, May 16, 2013
The semester's over and commencement has passed, which means we're all hip-deep in a morass of faculty development workshops, hastily crammed into the two- or three-week-long period before half the faculty take the rest of the summer "off."
This past Monday-through-Wednesday (Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday, and Wednesday morning) found me in two full days' worth of workshops dedicated to diversity and inclusion. UNC Asheville's faculty, staff, and student bodies are not representative of the overall population in many respects, particularly racially and ethnically. And what diversity we do have (in terms of age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and sexuality, etc.) often goes unrecognized and underappreciated. The result is a lack of diversity in some regards and a lack of attention paid to issues faced by members of certain underrepresented groups in others. To address this important matter (and believe me, I do believe it is of prime importance), UNCA's Diversity Action Council brought in a pair of outsider consultants to coach about 30 faculty and staff in becoming "Diversity and Inclusion Champions" ("DICs," for short?). This unfortunate acronym is, sadly, about the best thing to come of the workshop.
Well, not so...I'll start with the positives.
1. Community. The workshop involved a couple of administrators, about a dozen faculty, and maybe 15 or 16 members of the staff, from departments ranging from Housekeeping through the Office of University Advancement (basically a fancy name for the people in charge of building up the school's endowment). These are folks who generally have very little opportunity to interact, and their stories often go unshared. It was wonderful to me to talk to colleagues from Accounts Payable, Admissions, and Athletics, folks I'd never have met in the course of my day-to-day duties, folks whose perspectives are as valid as my own and who face a broad array of diversity-related issues in their work. This aspect of the workshop was enlightening, enriching, and invigorating.
2. Conversations. Similarly, the stories we shared, many of which had nothing to do with diversity and inclusion, ultimately, gave us a chance to get to know one another authentically.
3. Communication. Many of the exercises we completed reminded us of important communication skills: active and compassionate listening, empathy and understanding, deliberation in discourse, etc. Though these skills have little to do with diversity, per se, they are good things to keep in mind in having future multilogues around important issues like diversity.
4. ...? I'm dyin' over here...
So what went wrong? First of all, as my last positive point suggests, the workshop was misnamed. If it had been called something like "Creating community and carrying on conversations," I wouldn't have found as much fault with it. (Note: "as much"; see discussion below.) As it was, though, I kept expecting there to be much more attention paid to diversity issues. I recognize that diversity and inclusion are incredibly complicated issues and that there's no magic pill the university can swallow to make it all better, but as it was there was practically no content directly related to diversity, whether in theory or in practice. Moreover, what content there was was overly-diluted, simplistic, superficial, and unreflective.
Part of the problem (perhaps the largest part) was the facilitators' utterly tone-deaf delivery. It was evident almost from the get-go that these two folks are used, almost exclusively (though they tried to deny it), to dealing with corporate audiences. Their manner of speaking was facile, reductive, and puerilizing. They dumbed things down, universalized, and made frequent superficial statements about complicated issues. The materials they used (handouts, videos, etc.) were similarly over-simplified and ill-suited for the audience they were speaking to. Sometimes the materials were simply misleading or untenable.
Example: the facilitators showed a 10-minute segment from Dateline NBC on the Implicit Association Test (IAT), an instrument used to help uncover persons' hidden biases. The IAT has been shown to be somewhat credible and most folks generally accept its reliability and validity. However, the Dateline segment, in an obvious attempt at dramatization, brought a dozen or so people into a studio to take a version of the test in front of one another and and in front of television cameras, thus placing the test-takers under enormous stereotype threat, a condition well-known to introduce substantial and problematic variation in test results. This condition rendered this piece essentially baseless, little more than a completely unreliable media stunt that undermined the credibility of a well-established psychometric instrument. When a couple of us pointed this out after the segment was shown, one of the facilitators acknowledged this shortcoming. "Then why in the hell did you show it anyway?" I thought.
Example: one of my "favorite" excerpts from the godawful handout on managing unconscious biases which they handed out for us to read on Tuesday night was a numbered list of the steps one might take to uncover and eliminate such hidden biases. Step 2 was "Identify your unconscious biases"; a number of people quipped "if they're unconscious, how are you supposed to identify them?" Step 6 was "Get rid of your biases." I was reminded of this famous cartoon:
Example: the same handout contained "case studies" on diversity initiatives undertaken by major corporations like Weyerhauser and Chubb (
The workshop's facilitators were equally oily, hands glad and laughter forced. The whole workshop was clearly an act for them, one they were used to performing in front of people who make far, far, far more money than everyone in our little room put together. At one point, I shit you not, the oilier of the two, Brad, said, to a room in which sat, among others, housekeepers who likely make barely more than the minimum wage, "That's why you all get paid the big bucks!" Tone. Deaf.) I got into a handful of tense exchanges with Brad over the course of our time together. After one exchange in which I called attention to the syllogism inherent in "Step 6" mentioned above, he got out of the conversation by simply saying, "see, what we're having now is a heated agreement!" He could barely contain his annoyance when I and several of my colleagues tagged the term "Diversity and Inclusion Champion" with the label "condescending." "I'm not 10 years old anymore," I said. "I don't have to be called a 'champion.'" One of my colleagues suggested the term "Community Advocate," and for the remaining hour or two of the workshop that phrase stuck.
Ultimately I was offended by the quality of the workshop, and I left wondering how many thousands of dollars the university had spent bringing these folks into campus. Worse yet, this was not their first visit to campus (it was, in fact, their fifth; four similar workshops have been run in the past couple of years) and it's not likely to be their last. As I mentioned above, the best things to come of it were community, conversations, and a reminder of some solid communication skills. I've learned more, far more, about managing diversity from any one of several learning circles I've taken part in over the past several years than I did from this workshop.
I might add one more positive outcome: during one of our breaks on the last morning of the workshop I was chatting with one of my colleagues from the Education Department, and I boasted that I was confident that by the end of the semester, the HON 479 students I'd worked with in Fall 2012 would have been able to put together a better workshop on diversity and inclusion. It got me thinking: why not ask them to do just this? Thus, I'm now planning to ask my Fall 2013 HON 479 students to design a workshop preparing participants to (1) understand the issues facing the citizen of a multicultural society, (2) interrogate and explain their own views on multiculturalism, and (3) more confidently engage members of multicultural communities. I have no doubt whatsoever that the students' product will exceed this past week's in quality, no matter the measure applied to it.
Thursday, May 02, 2013
- It does not provide a ringing endorsement
- There are many significant and thoughtful concerns that it would be better to address before the proposal comes to [the Senate's Academic Policy Committee] and senate formally
- The level of opposition is high enough that it signals that there is not enough support for the proposal for it to simply move forward"
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
It's been a while since I updated here, and I'm afraid it'll be a bit longer, since I've written several pages related to administrivia today and am in no state of mind to write much more that's job-related.
I did want to mention my latest bout of "another fine mess I've gotten me into": I managed to get myself appointed to the General Education Council, the UNC system-wide body of faculty who are charged with designing the system's general education practices in response to the Strategic Plan. That's what I get for bragging about my experience in program development, assessment, etc. Me and my big mouth, indeed.
My reward so far: reading 200-300 pages of documents related to the plan and sitting through an hour-and-a-half-long advertisement ("this isn't a sales pitch," they felt the need to inform us every few minutes or so, it seemed) delivered by several representatives from the Educational Testing Service, proud makers of ACT, GRE, TOEFL, CLA, and other standardized assessment instruments (or "products," as they seem to be fond of calling them).
To be continued. We're tasked with identifying system-wide core competencies for the various UNC schools' gen ed programs, deliverable by January 2014. "Seamless transfer" is the mantra-like shibboleth. "Individual campuses will retain their core identities," they promise us, even as they move toward curricular homogenization. "This is a faculty-driven process," they insist, herding us into the abattoir.
Buckle in: this is going to be a long and bumpy ride.
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
It's been a while since I've written here; it's taking a particularly fun exercise I tried out in my Oulipo class to get me back.
Today we played a game I called "Lie to me." Inspired by the byzantine yet convincing fictions Georges Perec creates in Life: A user's manual, I asked my students to spend ten or twelve minutes in crafting the beginnings of a bit of fiction in which they lie their asses off, given the following generic set-up: "You are a _______________ , with a(n) _______________ who hopes to _______________ while in _______________ ." For each blank the students drew cards: the first card gave them a character ("heroin-addicted airline pilot," "one-armed race car driver," etc.), the second accoutred them with an object ("a shard of the cross Jesus hung on," "an ounce of unrefined uranium ore," etc.), the third gave them a purpose ("publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama," "escape persecution by political rivals," etc.), and the fourth gave them a location ("Jakarta," "Prague," etc.). I joined in, writing as a homeless classically-trained violinist with a blind Bengal tiger cub who was living in New York and trying to solve the Riemann Hypothesis.
In the spirit of March Madness, the students advanced their stories through quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, ending with a competition between an expert on 17th-century Russian history and a deposed Latin American president. "It's like the darkest ever episode of Dora the Explorer," one of the students said about the latter story, written largely in Spanglish.
Fun times! I'm definitely going to have to try this constraint out again in a future class.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Well, I've done it. I've taken the first paragraph from Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (the book we recently finished reading together in Oulipo) and applied to it the five loftyizing constraints from the previous post, first one at a time and then all at once. Each individually meets with some success, but the overall effect is quite convincing. Great fun! Please check them out:
Original, the first paragraph from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Germanic capitalizing, a "fair coin" flipped to decide whether or not to capitalize a given noun:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s Night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the World around you fade. Best to close the Door; the TV is always on in the next Room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your Voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Inverting, a "fair coin" flipped to decide whether or not to invert the subject and verb in a given sentence:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Every other thought dispel. Let fade the world around you. Best the door to close; the TV is always on in the next room. The others tell, right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! Disturbed I don’t want to be!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; louder speak, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope leave you alone they will.
Theethouizing, “you” has been changed systematically to “thee” or “thou,” and “your” to “thy” or “thine":
Thou art about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around thee fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise thy voice – they won’t hear thee otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard thee, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if thou preferst, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave thee alone.
Oloizing, “O” and “Lo!” placed at the start of randomly selected sentences and independent clauses:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Lo!, relax. O, concentrate. O, dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. O, best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Lo!, tell the others right away, “O, no, I don’t want to watch TV!” O, raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “O, I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Lo!, maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “Lo!, I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Adjectival inflating, every adjective replaced by its longest synonym appearing on thesaurus.com:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every supplementary thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the subsequential room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
The whole enchilada: all five constraints applied simultaneously:
Thou art about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel, If on a winter’s Night a traveler. Lo!, relax. O, concentrate. O, every supplementary thought dispel. Let fade the World around thee. O, best the Door to close; the TV is always on in the subsequential Room. Lo!, the others tell, right away, “O, no, I don’t want to watch TV!” O, raise thy Voice – they won’t hear thee otherwise – “O, I’m reading! Disturbed I don’t want to be!” Lo!, maybe they haven’t heard thee, with all that racket; louder speak, yell: “Lo!, I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s uncontaminated novel!” Or if thou preferst, don’t say anything; just hope leave thee alone they will.
And yes, they pay me to do this, folks. How awesome is my job?
We're about halfway through the semester now, and I have to say I'm enjoying teaching more than I have for a few years now. I love both of my classes and am having tremendous amounts of fun with both of them. The Calc III class is the most engaged math class I've had in several semesters: the students are eager, active, and awesome. And Oulipo...I don't know how we can fit so much fun into three fifty-minute periods each week. I wish we met for longer...
In Calc III I've been starting each Wednesday (the dreaded "hump day") with a contemplative exercise of some sort, much like the first, about which I wrote a few weeks back. The purpose of each exercise is to ask students to put themselves in a positive frame of mind, to reflect on something that's lifting them up and to cast aside something that's holding them down. Today I asked them each to write a simple haiku (no season indicators or "turns," just a simple 5-7-5 syllabic scheme) about their current state of mind. Though I saw a lot of counting on fingers, I also saw a lot of earnest scribbling. Though I don't collect a single word the students write in response to these simple prompts, I have no doubt most (if not all) of the students are taking the assignments seriously, and I hope that they're having salutary effects.
In Oulipo the most recent out-of-class assignment was to write a "lofty" poem elegizing a quotidian object. Each of us selected an everyday object that was then randomly selected by one of the others in the class. We were then each tasked with writing verse that we deemed "lofty" in some fashion, extolling the virtues of the object we'd been assigned. For many people "lofty" meant "classical," and several student wrote poems in a romantic style, with rime and meter appropriate to an 18th-century-or-earlier bard.
After we'd workshopped our poems and read a number of them out loud, we talked briefly about conventional devices we might make use of to "loftyize" a piece of non-lofty writing and as a group came up with the following:
- Germanic capitalizing: selectively or systematically capitalize nouns throughout the piece.
- Inverting: selectively or systematically invert the standard modern subject-verb order throughout the piece.
- Theethouizing: selectively or systematically turn "you"s into "thee"s and "thou"s throughout the piece.
- Oloizing: selectively or systematically insert "o!"s and "lo!"s throughout the piece.
- Adjectival inflating (a nod to n + 7): selectively or systematically replace each adjective with its longest synonym appearing in an agreed-upon thesaurus throughout the piece.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Today's Oulipo class featured a constraint I made up in the middle class sometime last week but have only just now had a chance to try out. I call it "read one, write two," and it goes something like this:
1. One person begins the process by writing two lines of a poem, each on its own scrap of paper.
2. This person then passes the second line only on to the next person. This person then writes two lines of her own, passing only the second one on to the next person, and so forth.
3. At the end, the finished "poem" is assembled, made up of the various pieces, only half of which were "visible" to more than one person.
We had five rounds going at once, and though the bookkeeping took a little getting used to, we got the hang of it and managed to compile five 20-line poems between us. I've transcribed them below.
Ye, old hag,
why do you look at me so?
Do you not know
the love that's harbored within?
It only helps us to make nonsense out of silence.
The white noise under spoken tremors
is the most terrifying noise you'll hear
and the lullaby from the song on the radio
put us to sleep, like the video
of the man with the golden eye, daddy-o.
She spoke with both reverence and bewilderment,
"he's the smoothest street walker in town."
They say, though, he has a secret:
that once upon a time, he nearly got caught,
our hands upon the deer, illegally slain
the blood stained there and drying fast,
red as a cabernet sauvignon
to be shared with friends at the end of the week,
even when so tired you can barely speak,
with this, with them, the solace you seek.
Spring came too early this year,
we were too young; unready for the harvest,
and yet so old because all that we'd seen,
and each day a reminder of the ages we had
were reflected in the barman, who was mad
from all the ale he drank, he thought he was from Baghdad.
The drink was starting to affect his mind, you see.
Well, his mind along with his liver
were rotting, rotting away,
drinking poison day by day,
I feel my body giving over,
friends and lovers wash away
like suds off a car
washed in the middle of a hot summer day.
Instead of languishing in dismay,
if you must run, then run away!
Run off to the great unknown,
never to be seen again!
No, never to be seen again,
not ever in this world.
Whose great works were served to the throne?
There once was a barber from Rome
who quite enjoyed the company of loose women,
although you'd never know by how much he went to church.
Church, yes, but by night he wanders the murky forest,
hand in hand with darkness.
So trudge I thro' the tortured bush [?],
willows hang in gloomy mourning,
a shadow extending across the field.
The running water would not yield:
wounds so deep cannot be healed
prancing through the poppy field
stopping to watch the butterflies
flying in the air.
But when night fell, so did I;
a broken angel with battered wings
keeps moving forward, although winds blow through;
passing through the cold light of a sunny pale mid-winter afternoon
I saw a man standing in a meadow
and he said to me, "all is well."
Birds skip playfully through trees;
I find I have a sudden urge to sneeze.
The urge builds in the back of my throat,
undeniable, unbearable, I cannot resist any longer.
"Oh, Rowan!" she shouted,
the smell of catfish in the air.
Alive, they predict earthquakes.
Caught, killed, and fried, they are tasty.
Tasty to the one who eats meat,
a vegetarian's nightmare, a vegan's torture.
No, nothing at all, not but rotting meat,
for the ship had sailed for endless weeks,
endless weeks of throbbing, busy crusading outward on a thin vessel,
looking for a reason to keep from looking
by distracting myself with television shows.
But every so often I begin to start looking...
at the old cafe, where she was once cooking.
And if I look hard enough, I can smell her dumplings.
Their aroma takes me to the kitchen of my 11-year-old self,
where all my dreams began.
A bottle of water under a chair,
to hydrate those who care to drink,
or care not, and drink none at all.
But drink too much? I hardly think
a slip of vodka, a drop of wine --
hardly enough to make me blink.
I've lived it all before, it's no lie.
We will play these games until we die,
and I will die singing songs, telling myself my body was my greatest tool.
There is nothing left to wait for
because I am in the front of the line.
Now the cafe barista asks for my order.
I said "bring me a cafe from Mordor."
The barista said, "we ran out of those in the last quarter.
Running businesses is hard, you see."
Working tooth and nail, and still no profit.
But who needs profit anyway?
Maybe a poor man like he
could live by a liverwurst sea
and eat cantaloup grown from a mulberry tree.