Sometimes I Love My Students

I have awesome students.

This morning, I prepared my class, went downstairs to my 10:30 class at about 10:25, ready to set up some web things. I got to the door, and the whole class was there (all but one or two, itself quite remarkable at this time in the term), lights dimmed, watching the student scheduled for one of the presentations that day _doing_ his presentation. Everyone was listening intently, laughing in all the right places.

It was all a bit “wtf” but I thought, oh, maybe he’s been telling them about his play (this is the scriptwriting class) and they wanted to hear it (I know, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but…). Anyway, when he was finished, I walked in, took my place at the computer terminal and started setting up. I looked at them, looked at the clock, and said “I’m not late… ?”

Uh. Yeah. I was. The class started at 10:00. I don’t even have the excuse that I was an HOUR late because of the time change. I just got muddled, because all my other classes start on the half hour, and I think I conflated this one with another one later in the week. And this one has a silly schedule that’s different on Mondays than it is on Wednesdays. And I’m tired, and a bit depressed, and my brain is fuzzy.

But – HEY YOU GUYS!! They were carrying on the class without me! How cool is THAT! They were engaged, responsible, and participating. Wow.

They could have walked out. And if I’d walked in, 25 minutes late, to find one person there to tell me they’d done that, I think I would have gone and jumped off a bridge. Instead, they give me this gift.

Oh, and we’re reading Firefly episode 5, “Out of Gas,” and someone in the class was wearing a cunning hat. How cool is that?

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Rumours of my death…

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

My good friend and colleague told me about the success she had had with an “obituary” assignment. The concept was simple: get students to interview each other, then write a fake obituary of the person. It teaches good interviewing and instills a sense of responsibility for the person you are writing about.

So, I got my English 152 (creative non fiction) class to do it. The numbers were not even, so one student suggested that she interview me and I interviewed her.

When the time came, I couldn’t write her obituary. It just felt _wrong_ to write something about the death of this bright, vibrant, passionate, fascinating young woman. I couldn’t tempt fate. I couldn’t do it.

However, she, driven by the power of an “assignment,” wrote a terrific one about me. Oh, there are a few places where the facts are not quite right (I never actually finished my PhD, and the Isle of Wight is not in Surrey, though both are in England, but, hey, details…) And I realized afterwards that I never said anything about my wonderful circle of dear friends, who I think would probably miss me, too. I think she captured my spirit, though, and I’m grateful.

And lest you think that no one ever reads these blogs? A student from one of my other classes stumbled across this one, and was genuinely worried for a little while. I’m grateful about that, too, but sorry for worrying anyone! I’m glad to see that where the students have posted things about another student, it’s pretty clear that the obituary is a fake one.

100 Words

Early in the term, I asked my creative writing students to write 100 words exactly on either “lemon,” “asparagus,” or “bread.” We were working on descriptions, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise in writing something precise and focussed (one of the things many students have trouble with is getting to the point right away and keeping focus). Some of the results were amazing; it was a good exercise, and one that I’ll use again. I’ve given them a few more words to try for their blogging challenge, and I hope that some of them will.

It’s also surprisingly difficult. Here’s mine, on “asparagus.”

I tried growing asparagus once. It’s my favourite vegetable; I love its indescribable, slightly musty, flavour, the strange combination of textures in my mouth – crisp stem and rough, bitty tops. There’s an art to cooking it. If undercooked, it’s bitter; if overcooked, it’s soggy and tasteless. Nothing is better than eating your own asparagus fresh from the garden. Phallic, it pokes up through the soil, the early shoots surprisingly thick, sometimes twice as fat as anything you normally see in the store. At the end of its season, the shoots become wiry and fragile, tips finally bursting into feathery fronds.

Getting the Hang of Twitter

I have to confess that I thought Twitter was a bit silly when I first signed up for it (I can’t remember exactly when that was, though it seems a while ago now). In the first year or so, I hardly used it at all. While I could see the point for people with equally computer savvy friends and family to keep in touch with each other, I still thought that “real” blogs were a much better way to connect and communicate online.

While I don’t think 140 character tweets will necessarily replace the long, thoughtful, blog post, I am liking it more and more as a kind of “command central” for other social software networks, and as an information gathering device. I wish that all my Facebook friends and relations were on it, as I find it a much cleaner and more efficient interface – all the benefits of the Facebook update without the “Mafia Wars,” “Gifts” and intrusive advertising (though Twitter’s new terms of service include the announcement of ads).

People complain about the banality of Demi Moore’s or Ashton Kucher’s posts, or the opportunism of Ellen Degeneres or Oprah. Well, you don’t have to follow them! If I discover that someone (that is, some celebrity type person) is only using Twitter to announce upcoming appearances or publications, I fairly quickly “unfollow.” And, unlike in Facebook or other social software systems, you can quietly “unfollow” without drama or offense. I prefer Neil Gaiman’s blog to his “tweets,” which mostly link to his blog or repeat much of the same content. On the other hand, I like Stephen Fry’s tweets better than his blog. I follow Margaret Atwood, who does announce book launches and appearances, but also links to other things that interest her; and I have to confess to rather enjoying reading about her visits to places in England.

I find it useful for keeping track of people whose blogs I read but who use a system I’m not immediately linked to; I am on LiveJournal primarily, and it’s easy there to see when my friends have posted. When others are on an assortment of platforms, I can collect them on Bloglines or Google Reader, but it’s one more place to look – I really like it when someone whose posts I enjoy reading is on Twitter and tweets “new blog post”!

I am getting into the habit now of linking my favourite Flickr uploads, my Blip.fm activity, and my Goodreads updates to Twitter. I feel that I’m connecting them to a wider cross-section of my online network (and isn’t that what it’s all about?). Of course, that requires that all or many of my online friends are on Twitter – I wish they were! – but at least the connections are building. The more popular and all-pervasive one of these systems becomes, the more effective it can be.

Here’s a recent example of the power of Twitter: I follow Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief, who approaches Twitter as a writer. Her quick observations of her own life are always cogent and interesting. She is developing a syllabus for a course in non-fiction writing that she is going to be teaching; yesterday, or the day before, she put out a call for everyone’s choices of best writers of non-fiction. Now, through the magic of hashtags, you can find a wonderful reading list.

My own tweets tend to run to the posting of links, or of updates to my other social software activity rather than personal updates. My interest in personal updates of other people tends to diminish in relation to how well I know that person. I really enjoyed reading the tweets posted when a friend of mine recently spent some time in Washington DC, but I have less interest in some abstract person’s updates about their children or their recent purchases, and feel somewhat diffident about posting such things myself. As for those compilations of recent tweets on LJ or elsewhere? Sorry, but I don’t read them.

Something that greatly pleases me in Twitter’s new terms of service is a requirement for attribution – acknowledge the source of your material, or risk having your account suspended. This is an extremely positive step towards what I think will become the “new” global model of information gathering and sharing, and the ethical use of information.

By the way, if you are interested in following me, I’m @debbieg.

Happy New Year!

If you are a teacher or a student, you may feel, as I do, that the “real” New Year, time of fresh starts and hopeful beginnings, is in September, not January. As we embark on this year, here’s wishing for good luck and great success for all, whether you are a brand new student, a seasoned grad student, someone embarking in a career of teaching English, or an experienced teacher trying new things.

I hope this blog will be a resource you can turn to. My “new year’s resolution” this year is to post at least once a week, and to try to provide interesting links and announcements that will be of interest to my students and colleagues, and to all who share an interest in English.

To start out with, I’d like to draw your attention to the “Links” pages in the menu bar of this blog – these contain sites on a number of topics that I have found over the years. Other blogs and key sites of interest can also be found in the sidebars here. And note my Delicious feed – this is updated as I find new things.

For my 150 students, one of the most useful sites for English composition overall is The Guide to Grammar and Writing.

For 152 (creative non-fiction), which I am teaching this year for the first time, have a look at
Creative Nonfiction, an online journal and information hub for the genre.

And of general interest – many of us are eagerly (but somewhat fearfully) awaiting the new movie version of Where The Wild Things Are. From the New York Times, here’s an article on the making of the movie. You may need to sign up to read it, but it’s free.

Creative Writing Launch

Last night, the English Department at Camosun College celebrated the official launch of their already successful creative writing program. The evening featured open mic readings from the public, followed by “feature” readings by selected students of the “Class of 2008.” The readings ranged from hip hop poetry to a sonnet, with everything in between – a little bit of a play, part of a story, a creative non-fiction piece with help from “plants” in the audience. It was all extremely professional; the representatives in the audience from our financial sponsors must have had no doubt that their money will be well spent.

It was also the launch of an exciting new online journal, Beside The Point. It will be run by students, for students, and will provide a venue for up-and-coming writers. It is now welcoming submissions for its next edition.