Saturday, February 26, 2011

Comedy (3rd 300 word post for the week)

Yeesh. I wasn't certain I was going to get this one in on time, and the standing rule is that if I don't, nobody else has to. Dratted rules and accountability.

We're...I'm using comedy in the classroom this semester. In the past I've worked with hands-on (rather than text-bound) research and community service requirements both as ways of digging into a project-based course. I'm a firm believer in active pedagogy and project-based learning so I'm always looking for new ideas that help us get into the material.

This semester, I've built my 101 around "Beg, Borrow, and Steal" as an active and project-based way of putting plagiarism into (and hopefully out of) action. One of tools I'm using to get into that idea is comedy.

For me, comedy is one of the great unifiers. Although we don't all have the same sense of humor (please, oh please, spare me another minute of the Three Stooges in this lifetime), chances are good that given an assortment to choose from, everyone can find something that generates at least a giggle. I'll confess to preferring over-the-top word play and physical comedy to the more subtle choices, by the way. Give me Wallace and Grommit, Shaun the Sheep (both Aardman), or a Christopher Guest movie (A Mighty Wind is my favorite) and I'm a happy girl.

Here's something interesting I observed, though. For all of our adult (and forgive me, my students, because in this moment I mean "adult" as over 30 because we're your educators and parents and thus see ourselves in the role of shaping your lives. Hubris anyone?) assumptions about the current generation of traditionally-aged students, one thing I've learned is this:

Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears was right about that "assume" thing.

For the first comedy-based assignment, I posted 5 clips starting with Abbot and Costello and ending with Eddie Izzard for my students to interact with. I assumed, foolishly, that the entire class would gravitate toward the Eddie Izzard; that it would be the hands-down favorite. I was wrong.

It turns out that young, contemporary audiences still like The Three Stooges, and that Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch is a classic no matter who is watching it. Once again, I find I've done my students a disservice by assuming that they're interested only in what is now and immediate. That by failing to acknowledge that they more complex than the media or my colleagues make them out to be, I am no better than the media or my colleagues. And for this I am apologetic and appalled. I can own this.

The good part, however, is I like that I'm constantly learning from them, even when it means my assumptions were dead wrong. I can own this, too.

We watched the Marx Brothers in "Duck Soup" last week. Next week, we're watching a more contemporary movie. I'm looking forward to reading what they have to say about the movies. I expect I'll be surprised, enlightened and, yeah, amused.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Because They Make Me Happy

One of my required topics is on why we wear shoes.

Allow me to confess now that some of the prompts are intentionally ridiculous, silly, or simply intended to provide an unexpected starting point. This would be one of them.
I have, in my closet back in Michigan, somewhere between 75 and 120 pair of shoes. Most of them are kitten-heeled, sequinsed, beribboned and utterly frivolous. One pair looks a bit like this, except in purple:

I wear them because they make me smile.

If you know me in my New York life, you would assume that my shoe collection consists of Keens, Uggs, Birkenstocks, snow boots and a lovable pair of leather flip-flops. This is because most of the time, unless I'm in my office, I'm actually wearing them. They look something like this:

That's the problem with my excellent shoes--I don't actually wear them for longer than it takes to walk from one room to the next. Mostly, they're for display purposes only. I do enough walking these days that I can't wear display shoes--they have to be practical. This makes me sad. Maybe I should go shoe shopping.

I just realized that I forgot the last, and most important, piece of this post on shoes. I'm lusting after these:

I'm too active in the classroom actually teach in them, but they'd sure look nice on the floor next to my desk and would definitely add some style to the jeans-and-cardigan combinations that I usually wear in the winter. Right?

Monday, February 21, 2011


Last week, I ran out of words. It's the only possible explanation for why I didn't get my posts done, my assignments written, my presentation started or any of the other word-based things that needed to be completed.

I hate it when I run out of words. No words, no job. No job, no rent money. No rent money, no place to live. No place to live, no electricity. No electricty, no coffee. No coffee, I'm doomed. I guess I need to figure out where my words went.

I just had a conversation with one of my tutors about setting and meeting standards, and how I can't name a standard and expect my students and my staff to meet it if I'm not willing to live up to it myself.

Darn it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Derby Car, Part II

When we left off, the Jedi Starspeeder was still in its rough cut stage. Fortunately, Commuter Dad was in town this weekend and he and the boy got the car into racing shape.

Here, the sanding is finished, the paint is on, and we're ready to work on the legal specifications.

First, it was time to add some weight. Derby cars can weigh a maximum of 5 ounces, and the builder's goal is to get the car as close to that 5 ounce cap as possible.

Although we had some fancy weights, we opted to use quarters. Each slot has two quarters that have been hot-glued into place.

This is a high-temp mini hot-glue gun. It gets quite hot.

Here, I'm holding a chunk of aloe
vera plant on my burnt fingers.

Success: 4 7/8 ounces

Our pilot is an ice Ninja. Several Jedi, both Lego and action figure, tried out for the slot, but the were all too tall to fit comfortably, especially after we added the canopy.

And finally, here's our Jedi Starspeeder, ready for the Pinewood Derby. We're all pretty happy with it. I'll let you know how the race goes.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

10 years from now

My ten years in the future looks something like this:

I have completed my dissertation, and am thenceforth known as "Dr. Commuter Mom" because I will insist on full use of my title by everyone. Including my kid.

I have also walked away from academia to pursue my other love, which is pretending I'm a decent cook. I have also, in this imaginary future, rediscovered a passion for gardening, and this passion has resulted in a most excellent kitchen garden where I grow most of the stuff for my job.

What job, you ask? I have had an ongoing fantasy: a tamale van. Keep in mind that I'm originally from Texas, the land of tamale vans. For the uninitiated, a tamale van is a regular van, usually painted white and usually with the word "Tamales" painted on the side with red paint that is flaking off in places. Next to the tamale van is an Hispanic woman, usually built a lot like I am. She is the tamaleria, or tamale-maker, and her wares are sold by the dozen in brown paper bags that are dripping grease. Sometimes she has a rump-sprung lawn chair, the metal legs hot from the Texas sun, where she waits for customers. But either way, the tamaleria is a fixture; the proof that these are home-made tamales that could be yours for $3.

I can definitely see myself, ten years in the future, driving around the country with a van full of tamales. My son will be off at college, so I won't need to be home in time to make dinner. And if I get hungry? Heck-I'll have a van full of tamales. Life will be good.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review (300)

My second post for the week is the blog review. Since I have the plague, and it is making me miserable, I'm going to go easy on myself by reviewing "Hyperbole and a Half" because it is entertaining and thus easy to work with.

My first experience with Allie Brosh's blog was this post: The English teacher in me fell in love with the grammar-based humor and the gentle lesson inherent in the silliness.

However, English teacher is only a small part of my persona. My well-developed sense of the goofy absurd is much more prevalent in my day-to-day interactions in most realms of my existence, and it is to that part that the majority of her posts speak.

That humor is in strong evidence here: Much like the Eddie Izzard Star Wars Canteen piece, this one brings me to incoherent tears of laughter. Also like the Eddie Izzard piece, it is situated around canonical irreverance that I find absolutely irresistible though I know there are some who would be horrified by both.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Derby Car, Part I

The Beginning
As I've mentioned previously, Pinewood Derby cars start out as blocks of wood, just like that one. The kit does include wheels and nails, and those vague instructions. Everything else is up to the scout and his parent.
Next: The Design
My scout is a fan of Star Wars. I could write multiple entries about his level of fandom, but I'll spare you beyond a mention that, on the corkboard in my office is my official Jedi Knight certificate. My scout also has one; we earned them by attending Star Wars camp this summer.

Needless to say, he wants his Derby car to be made in the image of a Delta-7 Jedi Starfighter (I just checked with him to make sure I got the name right).

Part 3: The First Cut
I know nothing of woodworking. Nothing. I've watched craftsmen turn table legs on old PBS shows, but that didn't translate into any kind of knowledge. The first drag of the blade across wood was far more intimidating that I expected. I think part of it was the fear that if I blew it, it was over and there would be no Derby for us this year. Yes, I know, we could wander over to the Scout store and get another one, but logic has no place in a discussion of fear.
It turns out that not only do coping saws only cut in one direction, but that their thin blades get wedged into the wood. Here, I'm shaking the saw trying to loose the wood so that I can finish cutting in the rear rocket boosters.

Rough Cut

This is the basic shape of our Jedi Starfighter/Pinewood Derby car. I did have to saw more of a point into the front, and my scout has started sanding it.

Next, we'll need to get a circular drill/saw to cut in the cockpit, paint, put on wheels and other refinements. For tonight, though, I'm just glad we made it this far.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Expectations 1 (What I Expect From Myself [also: 3rd post for the week.])

I was going to launch into some long-winded reflection of best practices and how they dovetail with expectations.

Instead, I'm going to discuss the Pinewood Derby and my impending sense of doom. Kiddo is a cub scout, which has been a godsend in terms of meeting new kids and having opportunities to try things like skiing and archery. I's good for both of us because my inclination is to hibernate while he is much more socially inclined. Additionally, I've always adamantly refused to overschedule the only childhood he has, which means that the one thing we DO choose needs to be something he really loves. This kid will never be a good team sports player--it just doesn't interest him. The scouting activities, however, he loves and so we plow forward. But now, it's Derby time.

Pinewood Derby cars, if you didn't know, start out looking suspiciously like a block of wood with a couple of grooves on the bottom. The block comes with a small packet of hardware and instructions like "A car with untrue axles tends to steer to one side or the other" (BSA). Is it just me, or does it sound like I should be performing lie detector tests? Kiddo got a Spy Gear version of one for the holiday, perhaps I should go dig it out.

This is our third year doing Derby; for the last two, his father helped him fashion something car-like from the block of wood. Given that his father lives in Michigan, it looks like it's my year to do the Derby car.

Oh god.

Rumor has it I need to buy a coping saw, some powdered graphite, sandpaper, paint, and various other...things related to crafting a Pinewood Derby car. Also, I've started making vague noises about offering extra credit to any of my students who can make one of the wretched things. Who cares that it's a writing class rather than woodworking, right? I'm all about alternative literacies.

Plus, the guys at Lowe's will probably laugh at me when I tell them I don't know what a coping saw is or how to use it. I hate it when the guys at Lowe's laugh at me. Again.

What, you're probably asking, does all of this have to do with expectations? Fair enough, since the assignment is to write about expectations.

So here ya go, my expectations (for the time being):

  • That I will not saw off one of my fingers
  • That my best efforts, and those efforts of the boy, result in placing higher than 5th yet again (per his request. I hate denying him things but I can't guarantee this one.)
  • That I will not start smoking again as a result of this endeavor
  • That at some point I will remember that I am, for the most part, a competent adult who is capable of following directions (even bizarre and arbitrary ones) most of the time

Surely these aren't too much to ask.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Appeal to the God of Wiper Blades (300 words, topic of choice)

The god of wiper blades hates me

It started last fall, during the rainy season. My driver's-side blade squeaked something fierce. It was particularly annoying that day, though in retrospect I'm not sure why.

I set off for work, heading down the back roads the way that I always do in order to avoid the Main Street traffic, which isn't heavy outside of tourist season but can be annoying nonetheless. Squeak. Pause. Squeak. Pause. Squeak. It didn't matter whether I sped them up Squeak.Squeak.Squeak. Or slowed them down. Squeak...pause...squeak...pause...squeak. They squeaked.

(Aside: I swear I thought I had written about this, but maybe not--maybe I just told the story so many times that it feels indelible.)

In a flash of brilliance I thought "Hey! I know! I'll snap the blade--that occasionally works." And, in fact, it does work sometimes. Unfortunately, "sometimes" is not equal to "while driving down the road at 50 mph." I know this because when I rolled down the window and reached out and grabbed the blade as it swiped toward the driver's side, it snapped off in my hand.

To make a long and much-told story short, that blade is, to the best of my knowledge, still resting peacefully somewhere along the side of CR-10.

No, the wiper-blade-god-hates-me story I wanted to tell is this one:

This morning, I decided to be lazy and not bother scraping the snow and ice off my car. Instead, I started it, cranked up the defroster, the defogger and the seat, then finished getting ready for work, which includes running around in the back yard with the dogs for a few minutes. This is apropos of nothing, just a part of my morning.

By the time I was ready to go, the windshield was clear enough to see, so I threw my stuff in the car and headed off.

I don't know what it is about CR-10.

Eventually, enough snow had blown off my hood that I needed to use the wipers, so I did. And so the arm made a swipe across the window while the blade itself stayed behind, frozen in place. Just...frozen.

I'm still not sure how that happened, given the way the wiper blade housing works on my car. What I do know is that I fixed it with a twist-tie (thankyouverymuch) and a whole lot of automotive optimism. I also made it to work frozen, soaked and a little grubbier than usual.

As for the wiper blade, I will have it replaced (again). And I will wait, ever so slightly on edge, for the next wiper mishap knowing that whatever it is that I imagine, the reality will be just a bit more absurd.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Arm Bar (300 word memory post)

Late spring of 2008, my mother had a massive stroke. She lived in St. Louis, MO with my brother; I lived in Michigan. Because it was summer and I had the freedom that comes with living by the academic calendar, I spent many of those weeks driving back and forth. During the time in St Louis, I reconnected with an old friend. It turned out to be one of those relationships that withstood the test of time, which was a gift at a moment when I desperately needed one.

My old friend was participating in a self-defense class that was built on the principles of ju jitsu. I involved things like triangle holds, hip flips and my favorite, the arm-bar.

I had a lot of anger that summer; it was a complete compendium of anger, really, the kind that can be destructive if we don't find ways to release it. I must have been quite the sight at those self-defense classes. I would come in to them after a day spent at the hospital, having one-sided conversations with someone who was barely lucid at the best of times; I was still angry, still tired, still unable to control my own life that was spinning out of control. The instructor paired me up with a guy who was twice my size and half my age--probably wise decisions--and twice a week he would grab a set of pads and I would proceed to attempt to beat the crap out of him. I don't think I did too much damage--he got pretty quick at blocking.

And eventually, a few weeks into the summer, the anger had finally reached a manageable level and the instructor decided that I was actually ready to learn a thing or two about self-defense. We started with basic evasive tactics, then quick disablers and ways to use an attackers strength against him or her, and then finally, near the end, I learned how to perform an arm-bar. Learning to do the perfect arm-bar was, for me, the high point of the summer. I had never been the world's best daughter or ideal sister; I might have spent a lot of the days with my slowly-declining mother wishing to be anywhere but there, but by damn, I could disable anyone who tried to get in my way.

There is power in anger, but there is more power in anger well-used. While it's true that I've grown a little rusty on the arm-barring (it would require practice, after all), what I haven't lost is the knowledge that I can choose how I engage with the world. I can use my anger to harmlessly attack a guy with pads, or I can use it more productively as an advocate for things like access, fairness and standards. Anger is a lot like fire--we can use it destructively, or we can use it, like a forge, to create something new and often unexpected.