Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Making Grading Fun

Most college professors would say that the single worst part of our job is grading. I don't actually think this is true: the single worst part of our job is nasty, petty academic politics. That part of our job wouldn't exist at all in an ideal world, whereas even in an ideal world we would still need to evaluate the work of our students - though in an ideal world, I don't think we'd be GRADING their work, writing that fateful A or B+ or B/B- on the bottom of the page, but making constructive and encouraging comments to help our students learn. But even in an ideal world it might feel like a bit of a slog to be trudging through that stack of papers awaiting attention on our desks.

Here at DePauw teaching this children's literature class, I have finally found a way of making grading fun. Some of the conditions for this are not easily reproducible: teach subject matter that you love to a small class of highly motivated students who already come into the class loving the subject matter as much as you do.  I don't know if I'll ever in my life have these conditions as amply met as I have here.  But the other strategies I've found are strategies I could use almost anywhere.

First is to follow the best advice on grading I've ever received, from a former graduate student: "Assign papers that you yourself would enjoy reading." This means for me NOT assigning the identical paper topic to everyone with no latitude for individual choice and imagination. For this class I've let my students choose what to write about. For each paper they have a choice of three or four texts to analyze, and I give them for each text six or seven prompts to start their thinking - but they can also write on a text-related topic of their own or tailor my prompts to their individual interests. So I'll have a sociology student writing about social stratification in Harry Potter; I'll have an English major writing an elegant essay on the construction of the idea of home in Peter Pan; I'll have a football player (yes!) writing about the voice of the wicked queen's mirror as the voice of patriarchy in Snow White.  Each essay is different, so I read each one eagerly to see what I will find.

Second is to read drafts ahead of time so that the papers I get to grade are at a far higher level than they would be otherwise. I won't take drafts home with me to read: that would be like grading the papers twice - the horror! Instead, I offer generous office hours where I meet with students one on one to talk through paper ideas, outlines, and drafts. I am a fast reader, so in five minutes I can tell a student what she needs to do to frame her paper in such a way to answer the feared "So what?" question from the reader - how to state her thesis more clearly and crisply - which objections to her own position/reading she needs to consider. The downside of this is that the grades get too high, but I don't mind giving good grades to students who have written exquisite papers. And then when I sit down to grade I have the pleasure of writing in the margins, "Good point!" "Excellent analysis!" "Brilliant observation!"

The final strategy is to do the grading in a pleasant environment with a comforting beverage at hand. I got through quite a few papers in this last batch at the airport bar at DIA as I awaited my flight from Denver back to Indianapolis.  How I love sitting in an airport bar!  I did others sitting at home in the glow of the newly set up Christmas tree with a mug of my favorite Swiss Miss hot chocolate beside me.

So this semester I can honestly say I have enjoyed grading my students' papers. And a delicious set of final essays is still to come....

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In praise of work

The holiday season is the time I most often hear people say, "The only thing that matters in life is friends and family!" Or: "At the end of our lives, no one ever says, I wish I had spent more time at the office."

I am here to write in praise of work.

Yes, friends and family matter to me.  Perhaps they matter most.  But they are not ALL that matters, not by a long shot.  I took a walk with one of my friends the other day. Like me, like most of us, her Thanksgiving with her family had been decidedly "mixed": some good, some bad. In her case, the bad was overwhelming in her thoughts at the moment.  She wailed to me, "The only thing I ever wanted was a happy family, and I didn't get it!"

I wanted a happy family, too. Sometimes my family is happy, and sometimes we're not. But this is not the ONLY thing I ever wanted.

I also wanted to write. I love writing deeply and fiercely. I love writing because it is a a creative activity that brings me great joy, and it's also an activity that is completely under my control. I can't control how the world receives my writing - whether I get published or whether my books, once published, garner awards and sales. I can't even control the quality of my writing - I know I can't write a book as good as I'd like for my books to be.  But I can control the quantity of my writing, and the frequency, and I can learn all I can to make my books as good as I can possibly make them. I have truly loved every single hour over the last five decades that I've spent with pen in hand, putting words on paper.

At the end of my life, guess what?  I'm going to say that I wish I had written even more books, I wish I written even better books, I wish I had stuffed my life even more full of the creative joy of writing.

I'm going to hope my family and friends are beside me at that hour, too, and I'm going to tell them how much I love them, and how I wish I had been a better wife, parent, sister, friend.  I'm going to hope I meet them on the other side, in that bright and beautiful place.

But I hope that in Heaven, I'll be writing, too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Five Books

A few years ago, I overheard two colleagues get into a bragging contest about who was busier.  The object of the contest was to determine who had the better excuse for not serving on some hideous, horrid university committee.

"I can't possibly do it," the first one said. "I have to finish writing my book."

"Well, I have to finish writing TWO books," said the other.

This memory popped into my head this morning when I realized that right now I have to finish writing five books. Admittedly the work on some of them is extremely minor. Still, five books makes quite a long list for the purposes of academic excuse-mongering.

Here are the five books, all in different stages of completion:

1. I have to read the second-pass page proofs on my novel Zero Tolerance, due out next June. The FSG editing team and I already read the first-pass proofs, but I still found so many tiny things we had missed. How I hate words repeated in close proximity! "His eyes on fell on her." "Her eyes lit up." Grotesque!

2. I have the edited manuscript of Annika Riz, Math Whiz to review and revise from editorial comments. This is the second editorially prompted revision on the manuscript, so this time around I mainly need to sort out a bunch of logistics for cookie baking, lemonade-stand sign making, and Sudoku puzzle timing.

3. I need to revise the rough draft of Izzy Barr, Running Star, which I completed last  month. This one needs a LOT of work, and I have until February to do it, but I'd like at least to have the first two chapters in decent shape to share with my Boulder writing group this weekend (there is no point in wasting their time critiquing things I can easily fix myself).

4. If I'm going to have a book in the pipeline after Zero Tolerance, Annika Riz, and Izzy Barr, I need to start writing one now.  I think I've hit upon an idea I love, and I've started to work my way through the handwritten first draft. I had a breakthrough re the plot when I was in Oregon, so now I'm wild to curl up to write, write, write.

5. The fifth book is not a book I'm writing, but editing - a collection of papers on ethics and children's literature, drawn from the conference I hosted in September, with a few other papers added, including one by me, which remains to be written, and an introduction by me, which also is not currently in existence but will need to be in existence sometime in the next few months, to send off to the publisher who is expecting it next summer. And along the way there will be nagging of contributors, reading of their manuscripts, offering of helpful editorial comments, more nagging for the subsequent revisions, and more.

So: five books. If anyone asks me to be on a hideous, horrible university committee, I have my excuse at the ready. But I'm never happier than when I have a book to write. And I'm five times happier having five.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Still Lucky

I've said before that I'm a lucky person. I'm never sick. My flights are always on time. When Plan A falls through, Plan B often works out even better. This doesn't mean that my life hasn't been marred by terrible tragedy. Luck is not the same thing as immunity to the human condition. But overall my luck has been pretty remarkable.

My travel plans yesterday were: fly from Eugene to Salt Lake City, fly from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis, get home around midnight (the time change flying west to east doesn't work in one's favor), sleep, get up, teach my beloved children's literature class, then go directly back to the airport to fly to Denver for Thanksgiving break with my family. I didn't even bother checking the flight status online before I left Lorena's house for the airport, because my flights are always on time. When I got to the airport, the monitor said my flight was on time. Of course it was, because my flights are always on time.

But as the scheduled moment for boarding drew near, it became apparent that something was wrong, and that this particular flight was NOT going to be on time. An announcement was made about "mechanical difficulties" that might take a while to fix. (We found out only later that the reason the repairs took so long was the mechanic had to be summoned from Portland!). An hour or two later, it became apparent that many if not most of us would miss our connecting flights. An announcement was made that we should start hoping very hard that our flight didn't get canceled altogether, because if it did, there were NO available seats on ANY flights by ANY airlines out of Eugene all week, because of the Thanksgiving holiday crush.

We all lined up to work on our respective Plan Bs. (I have to say that throughout the whole episode, the Delta staff at the gate couldn't have been more helpful and sympathetic). I learned that there was no way now that I could get any connecting flight from Salt Lake to Indy that would get me back to DePauw in time to teach my beloved students. WAHH!!!! Tearfully, I emailed them to cancel class.

But Plan B turned out to be not without its own charms. There now being no point whatsoever to my flying to Indy, I arranged to fly directly from Salt Lake to Denver. The flight from Eugene did indeed take off four hours late, to cheers from all of us. I spent the night as Delta's guest at a pleasant airport hotel by the Salt Lake City airport and had a most tasty sandwich at a restaurant that stayed open just to welcome our group of "distressed passengers."

Now I'm at the airport for my 6:50 a.m. flight to Denver, which will get me home hours and hours before I would have arrived on Plan A. I'm still heartbroken about missing my class (after all, I had been willing to fly all the way across the country at considerable expense just to teach it), but there is a strange relief that comes in that moment when one bows to what can't be otherwise. And a few extra hours of holiday time at home is sweet compensation.

So it's no longer true that my flights are always on time. What's true is that my flights are ALMOST always on time, and that when they aren't, the rest of my life turns out to be still a good life, anyway. And that's what I call being a lucky person.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Writing vs. Gymnastics

I spent yesterday at a junior gymnastics meet, the southern sectionals for the state of Oregon, in Coos Bay.

Well, much of the day wasn't spent at the meet itself. It was spend driving there, past fields of impossibly green grass nibbled by picturesque sheep, past blueberry farms, past forests of towering evergreens, past a lighthouse on Oregon's rocky coast (the coast kept discomfiting me by being on the RIGHT-hand side of the road as we drove south, unlike the New Jersey coast of my childhood). We also made stops at a little bookstore/cafe so I could see if they had any of my books (they did! so I am now three-for-three at Oregon bookstores - thank you, Oregon!), and at a huge candy store (Cranberry Sweets) to see if they had any fudge (they did! and amazing samples of everything,  best of all: chocolate-covered cranberry jellies - oh, my!). But the heart of the day was the gymnastics meet.

How these strong, graceful, and determined girls can do what they do is of course astonishing - where the hardest part of what they do is not even back flips off uneven parallel bars, but weathering inevitable disappointments with grace.  I came away from the day enormously impressed, but also enormously grateful that I am a writer instead of a gymnast.

Here are ten of the reasons why:

1. I can perfect my work at home in private before I ever have to show it to anybody in public.
2. When I do show it to people in public, it stays fixed in the form I gave to it in private.
3. There is no risk of physical injury (except for the time I broke my tooth while chewing on my pen).
4. There is no need to wear form-revealing clothing (a flannel nightgown does just fine).
5. No particular body type is preferred ("elegant lines" are written on the page, not displayed on a balance beam).
6. My fear of heights is never engaged (unless I choose to write a scene that engages it, which I now pledge never to do).
7. Scoring is much less precisely calibrated: no 8.95 or 6.94 to drive me crazy (though I guess some writers drive themselves crazy with their sales ranking - so I might need to withdraw this one....)
8. What scores I do get (such as rejections, reviews, or royalty statements), I see in my own home where I can cry alone in peace.
9. I can do the work that matters most at the time of day where I am freshest and best: in my case, at five o'clock in the morning,
10. There is no one single moment of my day that is ever a defining moment for the day, let alone for my career.

It's this last one that is most striking to me. It was so hard to watch girls who had trained so hard for so many months have it all come down to a vault that was over in a matter of seconds, or one wobble on that oh-so-narrow beam.

For writers there IS one moment that is decisive, and it is decisive every single day, but in a very different way. It's the simply the moment when we pick up the pen and actually begin writing.

Friday, November 16, 2012


I've decided that I have to coin a new word for the former student/current friend I'm visiting here in Oregon. She's not a workaholic, she's a "lifeaholic." I don't think I've ever known anyone who crams her days more full of everything that makes her life worth living.

She's an attorney with her own family-friendly, feminist-inspired law firm, specializing in family law and women's law, in particular protecting women against violence.

She is a tireless advocate for abused women and children, instrumental in helping to found Corvallis's Advocacy Center for women.

She is currently teaching two women's studies courses at Oregon State University (this would be a full-time teaching load at many universities). I attended one class of hers yesterday and can't remember when I last learned so much in a three-hour period.

She has two school-aged children and spends enormous amounts of time ferrying them to gymnastics meets and chess tournaments, as well as supervising homework, cooking huge family breakfasts every morning, and being involved as a parent in their school.

She has a six-month-old puppy.

She gardens, knits, quilts, and reads for pleasure.

I "collect" lives I find enviable to study them to see possible ways I can add richness to my own already rich life. This friend's life is wonderfully inspirational. She does have a secret weapon: a husband who is a terrific father and a full partner in every conceivable way. Plus, she lives in the beautiful small city of Corvallis, Oregon, where her law office, her children's school, and her university classroom are all just five minutes from her home.

But her main secret weapon for leading a lifeaholic life just seems to be love: love for her work, her teaching, her family, her students, and her community.  And love is, hands down, the best secret weapon that there is.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sweet Connections

Sometimes life offers up unexpected sweetness.

Twenty years ago I was a brand-new assistant professor in the philosophy department at CU, teaching my first upper-division ethical theory course and learning along with my students. For some reason that I don't quite remember, I became involved in organizing our department's first-ever winter retreat for our undergraduate philosophy majors, up at Snow Mountain Ranch (YMCA of the Rockies), a time for twelve or fifteen students to gather together with a few faculty members for a weekend of intense philosophical conversation and fun in the snow.

As the weekend progressed, I couldn't help noticing that one of my favorite students from the Ethical Theory class, Lorena, an astonishingly bright and eager student who also knitted assiduously during every class, was spending the entire weekend in rapt conversation with another attendee, Justin; the two of them were inseparable. Before class one one day during the following week, she told me that I'd never guess who she was dating.  Um - Justin?  Yes!

Over the next few years, they both graduated and headed off to law school. I wondered if Lorena would have time to continue her knitting while immersed in the rigors of her legal training, but it was during law school that she took up applique quilting. She and Justin married, settled in the Pacific Northwest, practiced law, started a family. Their Christmas card letters told about their prolific garden, their canning, Justin's enthusiasm for guitar building, and the activities of their two bright, busy children, who grew up to become avid readers - of my books. I heard that 7 x 9 = Trouble! was a particular favorite, so much so that the parents awaited the sequel, Fractions = Trouble!, more eagerly than the children, so sick were they of reading the first book.

I'm writing this right now in the beautiful Indianapolis Airport, where I'm about to board a plane for Salt Lake City, and then travel on to Eugene, to spend tomorrow doing an author visit at Eliza and Quinn's school, and then to spend the rest of the weekend hanging out with the whole family, tagging along to gymnastic meets and other activities, seeing some of Oregon (for the first time). Tomorrow I will be talking about 7 x 9 = Trouble! in the classroom of the children whose parents fell in love before my very eyes on a snowy weekend twenty years ago. How sweet is that?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pumpkin Muffins in Illinois

I write this from a computer set in an alcove tucked up against a lace-curtained bay window in the circa-1920 house of my dear children's literature scholar friend, Roberta Seelinger Trites, who teaches in the highly regarded children's literature program at Illinois State University in Normal, IL.  Roberta and I were two of the American delegates to the "Image of the Child in Chinese and American Children's Literature" conference held in Qingdao, China, last June. It was on the high-speed bullet train from Beijing to Qingdao that we hit upon the plan of my coming from DePauw to ISU (about a two-and-a-half-hour drive) to speak to both of her children's literature courses some time in the coming academic year.  So here I am.

Roberta told me that her house bears a resemblance to the "old house in Paris covered with vines" in Madeline, which indeed it does. The room I'm staying in has a crib filled with well-loved old dolls. For breakfast we just had homemade pumpkin muffins with cream cheese. Of course, I also had Swiss Miss hot chocolate as my beverage.

Shortly we'll head over to the campus. I'll get to eavesdrop on paper conferences with Roberta's students during her early morning office hours. She's such an acclaimed scholar and veteran teacher that I'll learn a lot from watching her teach. The classes I'm visiting have both read my middle-grade novel The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, and Roberta assures me that they have prepared plenty of questions to keep conversation lively. In between the two classes I'll have lunch with some of her colleagues, who are also friends of mine from annual conferences of the Children's Literature Association, as well as graduate students.

The whole day should be wonderful. The whole visit has been wonderful already. And then I'll drive home tonight to my happy little life at DePauw, enriched by my jaunt a couple of hours west, just as a few weeks ago I was enriched by my jaunt a couple of hours east, to Indiana University East. I love getting to be DePauw's self-styled ambassador to the Midwest.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Red Auto Girls

Greetings from Evanston, Illinois, where I am spending a deliciously decadent weekend with the Red Auto Girls.  Who, you may ask, are the Red Auto Girls?  They bill themselves as "a collective of the adorable and intelligent Midwestern ladies who love all things Maud," where "Maud" is Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy book series.  I heard they were having a get-together in the Chicago area, and one of their members, who is a librarian at Wabash College, just up the road from DePauw, is an ardent Red Auto Girl, so I asked her if I could carpool up with her to join in the fun.  So here I am.

The group is a bit different from what I thought it would be. The rest of them, except for me, are all active participants in a Maud Hart Lovelace list-serve which over the years has morphed from a discussion forum for Betsy-Tacy fandom into an online community of close friends. So I feel a bit as if I have crashed a reunion of lifelong chums who already know all about each others' husbands, children, mothers, jobs, and of course favorite books. But everyone has been warm and welcoming and I've been sorting out names and stories.

We haven't talked about the books much at all, as everybody already knows all the books by heart and has discussed each one to death over the decades; however, all conversation is Betsy-Tacy inflected: e.g., as we strolled together onto the Northwestern University campus this afternoon, one woman called out to a little group who had gotten ahead of the rest of us, "Remember that you represent Vassar on all occasions" - a reference, of course, to Carney's House Party.

So far our activities have included eating, visiting the Evanston public library to tour the children's room, eating, browsing in a used book store, eating, and exploring the Northwestern campus. Tonight's eating will be dinner at the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, a favorite haunt of a younger Barack Obama from his Hyde Park days. Afterward, we will play games back at the hotel and probably eat some more. And then after eating brunch together in the morning, we'll head home to our separate lives in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, united by our common love of a series of books published over half a century ago.