Monthly Archives: November 2007

Sticking My Neck Out

The incomparable Taylor Mali, in his poem What Teachers Make, explains that:

I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.


A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine at TCC circulated an email asking professors what we think our students’ strengths and weaknesses are in our respective classes. Of course, she asked for the weaknesses first – I really wish she’d asked for the strengths first; that was a much harder question.

Anyway, I sent her my observations of where my students struggle, and she returned with a question about where I thought the roots of those problems originated. She wanted my opinion, and I gave it to her.

Here’s the email that I composed over the course of a couple of days. I’ve got to tell you, I has some serious reservations about hitting the “send” button:

J, if I’m going to be honest here – and I recognize that sometimes honesty is a dangerous policy – I’d have to say that, while I think that the root of the problem lies in the generally rotten quality of primary and secondary education in our country – especially as it’s been sabotaged by standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, I think that a lot of OUR specific trouble comes from a lack of stringent standards when it comes to the kind of work that we expect of TCC students.

I recognize that we’re essentially a technical school and that our lack of admission standards means that we shouldn’t expect the same things from our students as other institutions should expect from theirs, but I’m not sure I agree with that as a policy (or, more accurately, perhaps, as a culture). I don’t think that it’s wrong for us to demand more quality work from our students across the curriculum; culinary and med. assist. and photography students – indeed, ALL of our students – should be able to read and write and speak well and eloquently – these aren’t skills that are the sole property of four-year degree students – or of English majors. I know for a fact that students turn in abominable work to their program professors that they wouldn’t dream of turning in to me – their program professors aren’t going to dock them for their rotten writing (in some cases, they won’t even call them on it – last term, during the Constitution Week celebrations, I saw a poster with GLARING grammatical errors that was mounted and displayed as part of the Bill of Rights presentation. I even got a photo of it). My point is that if we don’t expect the same high standards across the campus, that sends the wrong signal to our students. If we don’t care, why should they? (I realize that a lot of this culture comes from the desire for retention; the whole conundrum of education for profit (much like health care for profit) is something that will take smarter people than I to sort out.)

I think we do our students a major disservice when we make allowances for them because of the culture of the college or the lowered expectations of the student body in general. If anything, I think we should expect MORE of them; these are the kids who are going to have to work that much harder to prove themselves specifically BECAUSE they didn’t attend a more prestigious school or BECAUSE they “only have an Associate’s.” These are the kids who will be taken advantage of because they didn’t get the breadth of education that their four-year peers did, and I think that we owe it to them to send them out into the world – whether they’re going straight to work or on to more education – better prepared than I feel we currently do.

I may be WAY over my boundaries as an adjunct, but I really care about these students and I take my job – and the ethical and professional responsibilities that come with it – very seriously. I feel frustrated that most students don’t come to my classes (or, from what I hear, to my colleagues’ classes) with any sense of urgency or commitment, and I want to figure out a way to make them realize that they may be attending a little, low-prestige, two-year program, but that what we have to teach them is terribly important and they should take it seriously, especially BECAUSE we only have them for two years.

You did ask, however….



J emailed me back the other day and essentially said that she was grateful that I’d not only taken the time to respond to her, but that I’d pretty much hit the proverbial nail on the head as far as the culture of the school goes. “Thank you—for all of it,” she said, “…for your articulating this problem so eloquently and for caring so much…we are lucky to have you.

I near about deflated with my sigh of relief. I was horrified that my missive would land me in hot water – or worse, the chopping block. Well behaved women may not make much history, but they generally get to keep their jobs.

J met up with me in the copy room this morning and fired a warning shot that she may recruit me to help her institute a cultural shift at TCC. I may be called to run faculty workshops about writing standards, she may ask me to help her write guidelines and best practices manuals, and she asked my permission to tell others what I told her. I answered “yes” to all of it. TCC needs an attitudinal readjustment, and if it happens, I’ll be proud to be a part of it.

(you can buy the button here)


Filed under colleagues, concerns, frustrations, General Griping, I love my boss, out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching, Yikes!

Grammar Wednesday

I’m still so amazed by the blatant plagiarism from yesterday that I’ve not been able to even consider a Grammar Wednesday topic, so I’ll recap yesterday’s writing tips to my composition students as they consider their final research papers:


1. Do not use the personal pronouns “I” or “you” in formal writing. Establish a narrative distance from the work; this is not a personal essay. Further, don’t use “you” unless you are speaking directly to your reader and, generally speaking, that won’t happen in formal writing. Never use the amorphous “they” – always tell your reader exactly who “they” is.

2. Unless you are actually on a first-name basis with the people in your writing, use last names to refer to characters, people, or historical figures. Albert Einstein is “Einstein,” not “Albert.”

3. When giving background information about a person, please make sure that what you include is relevant. It may matter to me that an athlete broke his leg as a child, but not that a scientist did. Please also give information in a coherent order and focus on those events that support the thesis of your work. Don’t waste paper by giving pointless information.

4. DON’T PLAGIARIZE! Be certain to cite quotations and to list sources in your citation page that helped to inform your writing, whether or not you quoted directly from them.

5. Don’t overuse pronouns. Use proper nouns every so often to remind us of who or what you’re talking about, especially if the use of pronouns can be confusing (if, for example you’re talking about two different men and use “he” to represent both of them in the same sentence).

6. For the love of all that is holy, proofread your work. Please don’t leave out verbs or say “there” when you mean “they’re” or “scarred” when you mean “scared.” Please also divide your thinking into paragraphs and make sure that all your sentences are complete.

7. Avoid colloquial language. Do not use terms like “freaked out” or “mad skills” when you’re writing formal papers. By the same token, don’t use words you don’t understand simply because they’re “big and sound impressive.”

8. Don’t overuse quotations. Most of the words in a research paper should be your own; overusing block quotes will certainly fill up space and help you reach your page number goal, but it won’t show me how well you’re able to express what you’ve learned about your topic.

9. Please only use one font, one color. Don’t use all caps or italicize words for emphasis – use your skills with the language to make sure I appreciate your point.

10. Be certain that your sources are reliable, and cite them properly.

graphic credit


Filed under about writing, Grammar, great writing, Learning, Teaching


It’s been a day, kids. Mrs. Chili got to deal with her first ever case of blatant plagiarism at TCC.

The student in question – we’ll call her Jane – has been a problem for me all semester, not because she’s a troublemaker or because she doesn’t hand in work, but because she doesn’t interact in ANY way. She is completely blank – her eyes are dead, she can’t carry a conversation, she doesn’t seem capable of expressing an opinion. She doesn’t participate in class at all – and I’m not exaggerating here, People; I have, literally, never heard her voice in class.

At the very beginning of the semester – immediately after the first class, in fact – I went to her advisor for, you know, advice. What I got was profoundly dissatisfying: essentially, I was told to hold her hand and get her through. Um. Okay. Except, I don’t work like that. I’ve already DONE this work – I’m not here to do it again for someone else’s grade. Doing so serves neither my student nor me. I spoke with a few more of my colleagues, and we all suspect that there’s something developmentally wrong with Jane, but she’s not coded or otherwise identified as special needs, so there’s really little, beyond tutoring and a little extra attention, that we can do for her. I took Jane aside and told her that she needed to step up and do the work, and that I’d be happy to help her or to recommend her to a tutor in the resource center. A few weeks later, I sent her an email warning her that, because we’re a seminar class, participation is a significant portion of the grade. The fact of her conspicuous LACK of participation was going to negatively affect her overall grade for the course. She protested a bit but, to her credit, she approached me later to ask if she could do extra written work to count toward her nonexistent class participation grade. That seemed a fair compromise to me, so I agreed.

Last week, she turned in three papers: one each about Tim O’Brien’s stories, The Things They Carried and Ambush, and one about Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

What is it about (some) students’ minds that they think we’re not going to notice when their writing suddenly changes? Do they think we’re not going to come up short when they use words in their papers that we’ve never seen them use before? Do they think we’ll not see when their sentences suddenly become complex and their punctuation miraculously improves? Do they think we don’t recognize their writing voices, and that we’ll not notice when those voices drastically change?

Jane lifted most of her Rue Morgue paper from this site. A lot of her Ambush paper came from here, and the paper she “wrote” about The Things They Carried was essentially cut-and-pasted from this site. All I had to do was Google a few words of a suspect sentence, and the sites came right up for me. She never cited any of the sources; she didn’t even bother to change the wording. Every once in a while, she’d leave out a sentence here or there, but when I was finished highlighting the pilfered lines, the paper was buckling under the damp of the yellow ink.

The real kicker of this whole story? Jane is a Paralegal student.

I confronted her with her neon papers this afternoon – along with the copies I’d made of the websites from which she’d stolen. I started by asking her if she understood what plagiarism is, and she said she did (“yes” was the only answer I got). Then I showed her the “work” and told her that this is completely unacceptable. She’s in college to learn, not to copy other people’s ideas and thinking and claim them as her own. She asked if she could have an opportunity to rewrite the papers, and I said no. I told her that she’d receive zeros for the three papers and that, from now until the end of the semester, all of her work must be her own and no one else’s; this is to serve as a warning – the next time she plagiarizes in my class, she fails the course and I recommend her for administrative action.


I’m in the middle of writing an email to one of my colleagues about the standards (or lack thereof) that we hold for TCC students. I think that Jane’s behavior is a symptom of TCC culture in that we, as a faculty, don’t expect our students to behave professionally and ethically. I’m standing my ground on this, and Joe has by back 100%. There are a lot of things about which I will negotiate; plagiarism is not one of them.

(photo credit)


Filed under colleagues, concerns, frustrations, I love my boss, student chutzpah, Yikes!

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream…

I’m starting Hamlet with my literature class on Tuesday.

I run my lit. class thematically. Rather than going through the basics – the elements of fiction and the structure and characteristics of different genres; all stuff they should have covered ad nauseum in high school – I decided to set up the class around a few major themes. I started out with identity, social expectations, and overcoming adversity, for which we read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and a variety of Holocaust literature. We then moved through to nature, responsibility, and what makes us human – Frankenstein covers all that and much more. Now, we’re headed into ethics, family, and decision-making with Hamlet.


I’ve decided, though, since we’re running short on time, that we’re not going to read Shakespeare’s longest play from cover to cover – I still want to get to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. I’m planning to show the class the Franco Zeffirelli / Mel Gibson version of Hamlet (which I have because I bought it long before Gibson outed himself as a religious nutjob / antisemitic asshole; I likely won’t give him any more of my money from now on) and we’ll read excerpts from the play as we go along. I did my Master’s research on using film as literature in the classroom, and I have enough experience with the play to be able to guide the students through the “Hollywood” version with a fair degree of confidence.

I’m going to make sure that the kids read the world’s most famous siloloquy and we’ll likely take a good long look at the closet scene both in film and on paper. Zeffirelli took some liberties with the order of things in the play, too, and we’ll do some investigation of why he may have chosen to move things around the way he did. I’m considering a couple of essay questions for the class, too – there has to be some writing, after all – and I am kicking around the idea of a multi-media project, as well.

A quick check of my bookshelf tells me that I have Hamlet in four different texts (five, if you count the anthology we’re using in class). I love the play, I have to admit to loving the movie, and I’m really looking forward to working through it with what I’ve got left of this group.

photo credit


Filed under film as literature, great writing, Literature

Grammar Wednesday, Dinner Time!

I’ve been stuck on this website for DAYS now.  If you haven’t seen it yet – and have not yet been sucked into the geeky, humanitarian vortex which it creates – please do go and check it out.

For the record, I’ve made it to level 43 (and I now know what an abattoir is!).

Happy Wednesday, Everyone – and a happy Thanksgiving to those of my readers who celebrate it.


Filed under fun, Grammar, little bits of nothingness, out in the real world

An Informal Reader Query

Gentle Readers, I’ve a question to pose.


Frumteacher asked me, in a comment she posted today, what I intended to teach in next semester’s literature class.  The question brought me up a little short.

To be honest, I’d not really given the content of the class that much thought yet; I’m still neck-deep in this term’s class and am pretty focused there. I know what I’m doing NOW; we’re going to read a few short stories on Tuesday, I’m going to give them the Thanksgiving “weekend” (because it’s really six days – that ain’t no weekend!) off, then we’re coming back to view Gibson’s Hamlet as literature (with some selected readings from the play itself, of course). Once we’ve finished that, I’m going to give them A Christmas Carol (with selected film viewings, namely Patrick Stewart’s version and, of course, the Muppets).  That will bring us to the end of the term, at which point I’ll start thinking about the curriculum for the January class.

Here’s my question to you: what would you like to see included if you were going to take a literature class? What works would you be excited to see on a syllabus? What would you dread and consider dropping the course over? My parameters are only that we hit a bunch of different genres (short story, poetry, plays and / or dramatic readings, and at least one full-length novel) and a bunch of different themes (identity, love, loss, hope/despair, that sort of thing). We work out of this textbook, but I don’t mind using other resources, too (I printed Frankenstein off the internet for my students this term – it’s in the public domain and is easily accessible).

So, what do you think?

photo credit


Filed under Literature, Poetry, popular culture, Questions, self-analysis, Teaching

It’s Not EXACTLY What I Wanted…

… but it’s still a literature class!


I just got off the phone with Joe, my boss, about my schedule for next semester. I was really hoping for that Monday night literature class – running, as I was, on the assumption that the woman who usually snaps up all the daytime lit. classes would have had her way with the schedule by now.

It turns out, though, that she’s not teaching literature this coming term, but that the evening class that I had so hoped for has been taken by someone with far more seniority than I currently have. It also turns out, however, that there’s a daytime class – Mondays and Wednesdays from 8:40-10:50 – that’s available. At least, it was, until I grabbed it. I also managed to score a hybrid composition class from 11:10-1:00 on Mondays and a lab duty on Thursday nights from 6:00-8:30.

From what I understand, my responsibility to the lab class is to be a knowledgeable adult in the room and to help students with writing issues they may encounter for the time I’m there; there’s no prep and no formal teaching involved – I’ll be essentially an on-duty tutor. Joe tells me that I’ll likely spend most of my time “playing solitaire,” but I expect I’ll put that time to better use: I foresee a lot of good reading and grading time in my future.

The ONLY downside of this is that my schedule is shifting to a Monday/Wednesday scheme, and I was really hoping to keep my Tuesday/Thursday routine going. I still teach a step class on Wednesday mornings from 9-10:15, and I’m going to have to give that up – perhaps permanently – because of my TCC commitment. It was a hard choice for me to make, really; I’ve worked for the health club longer than I’ve worked for TCC and I feel I owe no small amount of loyalty to the club, but my professional heart lies with English teaching, not fitness instruction. Besides, I would have totally wrecked my credibility with Joe: I lobbied too hard for a literature class to turn around and tell him “no, thank you.”

So, long story short is YAY! I got another literature class! All your crossed fingers really helped! Thanks!


Filed under I love my boss, Literature, success!, Teaching