Wednesday, January 25, 2006

As Heard in Class This Week....

In my night class this week (read: non-traditional age students) we were talking about the Jim Crow South. I think we must have been talking about Booker T. Washington and his advocacy of a trade-based education (i.e. put freed slaves to work learning trades and farming). One student raised his hand and asked if, during slavery, slave owners tried to breed the strongest and best slaves. I told him that, yes, some slave owners did express interest in "breeding" (for example, purchasing female slaves known to be good "breeders") and that the horrendous conditions of the Middle Passage and slavery itself might have worked to create something of a "survival of the fittest" dynamic. But no, I didn't know of any systematic approach to "breeding," especially since they didn't understand how and which traits would be passed.

But this student wouldn't drop it. Apparently he wanted me to agree that the "strongest and most muscular" African-Americans had been bred during slavery because it would explain "why they're so good at sports." There are two women in the class who took my US I class last semester and they looked quite amused, wondering how I was going to handle this one! So, in the heat of the moment, I think I did pretty well. I told him that I did not believe that was true. For one, slavery happened many years ago and I'm not sure we can draw any causation from that, even if such "breeding" occurred. But more importantly, I don't think it is true to say that African-Americans are "good at sports" because they may predominate and succeed in certain sports. Why are almost all swimmers, tennis players, and golfers white? (Tiger Woods notwithstanding.) I suggested to the student that perhaps socio-economic factors served to concentrate African-Americans in certain "cheap" sports (tossing around a basketball) rather than sports that require memberships in certain swim or tennis clubs -- which both cost money and have historically excluded African-American members. Sadly, the student didn't seem to buy it, but the rest of the class nodded as if that made sense. As always, with teaching, forward progress can be slow...

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

As Heard on Local News...

File under: Stating the Obvious and/or Commodifying tragedy...

Last night I heard the following promo for the local (relatively big city) news (in fake Colbertesque anchor voice):

"Tonight we'll meet an area resident who spent three years during World War II in a Nazi prison camp. Not an easy place to be, especially if you're Jewish..."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Grading Gems

Okay, like any graduate student, I'm excellent at procrastinating. So I'm still trying to "catch up" with my blogging from last December. (even though I'm already one week into the new semester.) But still, I just couldn't resist sharing these grading gems. Right after my defense, I was just too mentally and physically exhausted to grade all those exams I brought on the plane. Plus there were friends to see, lunches to eat, coffees to drink! All (mostly) guilt-free!

When I returned home I had two full days to read all the exams and compute the final grades. Not fun, but certainly possible. Does anyone else get really cranky when grading? I have to continually remind myself that the students did not sit down to their bluebooks with the intention of annoying me. But I probably compound the cranky-factor with my choice of an essay question: The Civil Rights Movement. In USII, I devote quite a bit of time to this subject, and it is also a subject that is important to me personally -- especially after spending a week in Mississippi and Memphis this summer. And I must also add that the students knew ahead of the time that the essay would focus on the Civil Rights Movement. Yet I still get some really bad essays. Here are some winners in a few categories:

Word Choice:
"The black power statement made by Charmichael (sic) was a good thing because it got people riled up and ready to go on a march or riot or whatever they were doing that day." [RIOT?? Where did he get that word???]

Unclear on the Concept: (of the danger African-Americans faced in the South):
"One thing that I thought they could have done better was to protect themselves and their families more. I thought they could have done more to protect their communities instead of letting crazy white men drive through and hurl bombs into homes or squeeze off a few rounds into a house. They could have set up neighborhood watches or something."

Anthropomorphization (not Civil Rights-related; this is an identification of Silent Spring):
"This happened in 1962 and was a book written by Rachel Carson. This book came out of Pensilvania (sic) and made its way up to Washington DC."

That one had me laughing for a while -- not only did they get the direction wrong (up to Washington DC?) but I just imagined a book slowly shuffling along the interstate, perhaps trying to hitchhike?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I passed!!!!!!

Dear ever-patient blog readers:

I hope that you have all been way too occupied by your own holiday activities to be worried about my silence regarding my 12/15 defense, but the short story is: I passed! This radio silence over the past few weeks has been due to frantic grading, holiday craziness, other factors, and now, a horrible cold... but I'm finally feeling coherent enough to put some words together. Rather than one terribly long post, I'll try for a few posts over the next week.

So, onward to the defense! As my friend reminded me beforehand: all you have to do is get a C. And he's right. So the most important thing is that I passed without revisions. I'm not going to officially graduate until May '06, so I've got months and months to work on a few typographical things, fix a few ornery items in the bibliography, and contend with our new electronic submission requirement (read: nightmare).

But perhaps that description makes it sound worse than it was -- in my mind, all I cared about was passing and I had no higher expectations for my performance. But in reality, I think it went really well. Due to end-of-semester schedules, there were no spectators. (fine with me!) So it became an engaged and private discussion between me and my committee members for two hours. I received many nice compliments from my committee when it was over -- and they had even brought champagne with them!

But I realized later that a defense (if it goes well) is really a strange animal. Theoretically, everyone has already decided to pass you and the conversation should be about what happens in the next phase, i.e. what you should do as you turn this into a book. And that was certainly the tone of my defense. But... if you think about it, that's a really strange situation. Rather than talking for two hours about what you did do, it becomes a conversation about what you did not do. So instead of talking about my area of expertise (my dissertation) the conversation mostly contained my ill-informed speculating about what I might find if I did X research, and what I thought might happen if I focused on Y area of theory, or if I had taken the project in Z direction. Very strange, but also a situation in which I felt comfortable saying numerous times, "Well, I don't know, but that's certainly an interesting idea!"

Perhaps my biggest worry was my one committee member who is More Theoretical Than Thou -- but this did not present a huge problem. He was on a speaker phone since he has moved to another university in the meantime. And while I probably didn't understand most of his questions, I managed to come up with something (my motto: If I'm talking, they can't be asking more questions). So my babbling, combined with a judicious use of "Well, I don't know, but that's certainly an interesting question," seemed sufficient.

Now for the tragi-comic relief: You're probably all imagining me conducting this defense in my most favorite Professional Outfit -- a camel-colored silk jacket over black pants and a black shirt, heels, and my grandmother's necklace. Ah, if only that were the case! Northwest Airlines (yes, this is my bad karma for crossing a picket line, but flying to my Home University presents few other options) failed to deliver our luggage for more than 48 HOURS. TWO DAYS LATE. Since I had to bring my dissertation and all related papers (articles to read, notes, thoughts, etc.), my laptop, and all my exams to grade, our carry-on items were full. So we erred and checked more items than we normally would. So we were without a change of clothes, without our toiletries, prescriptions, etc. Total bummer.

I knew from the flight schedule that there was no way the luggage would arrive before my defense the following day. Thankfully we were staying with a friend who was able to provide toiletries and sweatpants and other items of comfort. I had some hopes of borrowing some professional clothes, but discovered that my shoe size was at least one size off! So basically that meant I was stuck with the hiking boots I wore on the plane. And if you can't change your shoes, there's no need to try to borrow a skirt or something. I did borrow a sweater and blazer, but below the blazer I wore my remaining clothes: jeans, hiking boots... and inside-out underwear! Not quite the professional impression I wanted to convey.

So where was our luggage?? We figured the luggage was just sitting in Detroit (or Day-twoi, or Detroilet) waiting for the next flight. Well, two days later, our hostess answered a call from Northwest. Northwest told her they had "found" our luggage. My thought: we didn't know it was lost! The Northwest worker told our friend (while giggling. I kid you not.) that the luggage had been sent to Another City With a Similar Name, since (giggling), "The airport code is only one letter off!" We were not amused.

But even this incredibly frustrating event was a good lesson in finding something to be thankful for: the luggage was originally delayed by a winter storm, so we were simply thankful that we had made it -- we could likely have been stuck in Detroit for two days and I would have missed my own defense.

So, in the end, all that matters is that I passed!