Monday, September 7, 2009

The Ultimate Steal

Ashland students can get a full copy of Microsoft Word (either Mac or Windows) from the IT department. If you have one of those tiny notebook computers without a CD drive, they will even install it for you.

Akron students don't get a deal like that, but I've found one that's close. It's called The Ultimate Steal, and offers a download version of the full suite for $60.

If even $60 is a problem, I'd suggest Open Office if you have Windows or NeoOffice for Mac. (Open Office says it works well with both Linux and Mac, but I haven't tried those versions.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

We begin again

Here we are at the start of another college term. More than ever before, I'm realizing that the new freshmen (that's you) are pretty clueless and frightened about the whole process, and that I need to give you grace and help. That's part of the point behind this blog.

The basic Blogger software has one problem that gets in our way: the most recent posts are on top. You really should read this blog from oldest to newest, so you should click on the links at the right to move back a couple of years and begin there. I began with the most basic material, and some of the more recent comments are (frankly) irritable and scary, especially if I'd had a run-in with a student and was feeling grumpy.

Anyhow, I hope this material is helpful and that this alien planet (college campus) becomes a pleasant home for you fairly soon. Do remember that there are LOTS of resources to help you survive here. You just need to ask.

Computer Abuse

Most English teachers really hate teaching in a computer lab. The school administrators who put these things in seem to think that a writer spends almost the whole day hammering away at a keyboard. Maybe that's true, but a writing class doesn't.

The class enters the room. We've just read a chapter on, say, finding a topic, and I want to give them some more information. The students immediately fire up the computers and log on. I try to do the class, while two or three, sitting in the back corners where I won't see them, are hammering away furiously on the keyboard. One is doing homework for another class. Another is doing instant messages. Yet another has a furiously typing a paper that's due in our class today. None of them is really in the room. All think they are fooling me.

Classes that don't meet in computer labs almost always have at least one or two keyboard jockeys who assume I won't see that they are totally engrossed in their laptops, hammering away on the keyboards, staring with fixed expressions at the screens.

I assume, by students' behavior, that when you were in high school, only your physical presence was required in a room. If you spent the time sleeping or staring out the window or text messaging, the teacher didn't care because at least your body was there. College isn't that way.

Many of my students feel offended that I want to interrupt their 24/7 keyboarding to friends. One hour! Imagine all the important stuff they could miss in an hour! All the gossip!

Well that's fine. If you really need the uninterrupted electronic contact, simply don't come to class. See if you can pass without hearing any of the material we go over (you won't hear it anyhow if you're focused on text messaging). We'll be happier without you.

For the record (and I know it's a surprise to many students) here's the basic stuff about electronics in college classrooms. Almost all teachers would agree with my rules:

  • Do not use cell phones within the classroom. Do not make or receive calls. Do not text message (even below the desk where you think you won't be seen).
  • Shut off the ringer on the phone. Better still, shut off the phone itself. Your incredibly important caller can leave a voice mail message.
  • Sometimes computers are useful within the classroom, but only as tools for the current class. Do not:
    • Send email during class
    • Use Facebook or other social networking sites
    • Buy things on eBay
    • Look at porn
    • Play Solitaire
    • Do homework for other classes
    • Finish the paper for this class

Do you really want to lose participation points for the class? Do you really want to convince the person who is grading your paper that you're an immature pain?

By the way, turn off your iPod and take out the earbuds too.

Beginning this fall, I will be marking my attendance to deal with computer abuse. Every day that you show up on time, you get 100% of the attendance credit for that day. (Excused absences also get 100%.) Late students (and students who leave early or wander in and out of the classroom) get 50%. Students who are sleeping, studying for other courses or messing around with the computer on unrelated material get 25%.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My High School Teacher Doesn't Agree

I get a lot of static from students when I say something that differs from what they were taught in high school. They seem insulted that a college lecturer might know more or be more specialized than a high school teacher. They are put out that the information from Miss Phipps in the 7th grade isn't the last word on a topic. For those people, I'll throw out a few observations and a question or two:

Public school teachers don't need specialized education. Yes it's true. Especially in the lower grades (and many of my students haven't actually done anything with English since the 7th grade) a general degree in education is enough. That's not true in college. A master's degree in the specific subject is the minimum to teach here, and most college instructors have more.

Ohio doesn't require any public school teachers to know anything about English grammar. (That one speaks for itself, though they may have tightened up the requirements in the last few years. Even if the rules do tighten up, there are plenty of ignorant teachers out there.)

Even the best teacher in the world pitches a topic differently to a 12-year-old than to a college freshman. Seventh-graders are wonderful people, but they simply cannot deal very well with abstract thinking. They don't have much experience. They are on a very elementary level.

The source of the problem

A teacher who doesn't know grammar and usage that well is facing a bright-eyed 12-year-old who needs a concrete answer that will always be true. The result? The teacher (who doesn't want to look like an idiot to this child) makes up a fake rule on the spot, and the child faithfully memorizes it. Other (better) teachers talk to the same child and know that the elementary levels are better for laying down foundations, not for inserting insecurity, so more rules (nearly correct ones) come in. Yet other teachers who were taught in ancient tradition show up and don't realize that the English language likes to change and adapt very quickly, so they teach the child rules that come from Latin—rules that never did work in English.

A partial list of fake rules
  1. Put in a comma when you take a breath. No! No! No! A comma is not a mark for public speaking. It has nothing to do with the writer's physical condition. It's a grammar mark.
  2. There are no grammar rules, just opinions. People who teach this are just plain ignorant. They simply do not know what they are talking about. Punctuation isn't like the sprinkles on an ice cream cone. It's not a matter of personal taste. (If it were, then written communication would be impossible. We would all have our own systems.)
  3. Any sentence over seven words long is a run-on. Obviously people who teach that one have never read anything in their lives. One teacher who taught this lie told me the reason: "It's easier than teaching structure." I nearly punched here then and there.
  4. Every essay must have five paragraphs. This is another rule from people who haven't read anything. I'll sometimes teach the five, but only as a means of getting people into structure. REAL writing has a structure that comes from the subject.
  5. You must end with the words "In conclusion." This rule only applies if you are speaking at a Rotary Club dinner and want to kill your audience with boredom.
  6. The word "Although" at the beginning of a sentence always has a comma after it. No! No! No! It almost never has a comma after it. Yes, the CLAUSE it begins usually ends with a comma, but that's a different matter.
Yes, there are a lot of "always" and "never" rules. (For example, always begin a sentence with a capital letter and end a sentence with some kind of punctuation that has a dot.) Generally, though, the "always" rules that involve counting things or avoid thinking about structure and meaning are LIES.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


That's pronounced "fishing." It's an attempt to trick you into revealing information that a criminal can use. College e-mail accounts seem to attract a lot of it, and here's a very typical example I just got on my University of Akron account. The sender was "CAMPUS WEB EMAIL TECHNICAL SERVICE" but strangely, the e-mail address was in England. The subject line read: Weekly Email Maintenance!!

Dear campus e-mail User,

A Computer Database Maintainance is currently going on. This Message is Very Important. We are very concerned with stopping the proliferation of spam. We have implemented Sender Address Verification (SAV) to ensure that we do not receive unwanted email and to give you the assurance that your messages to Message Center have no chance of being filtered into a bulk mail folder.

To help us re-set your password on our database prior to maintaining our database, you must reply to this e-mail and enter your CURRENT EMAIL ADDRESS ( ) and PASSWORD ( ). Please kindly fill in the bracket with the Exact Email and Password, your domain name will also be required. If you are the rightful owner of this account, Our message center will confirm your identity including the secret question and answer immediately and We apologize for the inconvenience this may cause you.We assure you more quality service at the end of this maintenance.

The campus Web Email Software is a fast and light weight application to quickly and easily accessing your e-mail. Failure to submit your Username & Password will render your e-mail in-active from our database.

Thank you for using the campus Web Email!

It had a very professional-sounding website address to visit (which sort of compensated for the immature spelling, grammar, and English usage of the message). I forwarded the message to the UAkron computer people, who gave this terse response:

The University of Akron will never ask for your password, in an email, or in person.

Ashland University has issued this blanket warning because of a similar problem:

The Information Technology Department is warning people to ignore and not respond to the request to confirm your email identity that is being sent to many Ashland accounts. The email is titled “Verify and Update Your Ashland University Webmail Account” and asks for personal information such as email password and date of birth. IT will never request this type of personal information in an email format.

So there you have it. People who want that sort of information in an e-mail are never from the University.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Football Schedule Arithmetic

Most non-football players think team members spend their time goofing off in the gym. Most football players disagree. Other sports probably have similar problems, but the football players seem to have the most intense schedule problems. Let's look at it in some detail:

Each day has 24 hours, and we can't do much with that—the number is probably going to stay the same for a while. Now let's consider the five weekdays, Monday through Friday. Weekends are a special problem, and I'll get to those in a minute. Here's what we are deducting from each of those five days:

  • 3 hours for academic classes (Assuming a 15-credit load, spread evenly over the five days)
  • 8 hours for sleep (a number you probably should not cut back on—an athlete in training might need more)
  • 3 hours eating, dressing, brushing your teeth, etc.
  • 2 hours in the weight room
  • 1 hour for required team meetings
  • 2 hours for practice

So far, I've accounted for 19 hours. Most people find that at least an hour daily is just sort of lost (the phone rings, a friend stops to talk on campus, etc.). Assuming that the team meeting, the weight room, and the practice somehow limit themselves to those five hours, the student has a full four hours to spend on ALL other activities: studying, doing the laundry, and so forth. That's a total of 20 hours a week.

Most counselors advise that you follow the "two for one" rule in studying: two hours outside class for every hour in class, so our football player should be studying something like 30 hours a week. No problem! There's always the weekend.

No, there isn't. Every in-town game destroys all of Saturday (and somehow I don't think the average player can hit the books for 10 hours straight on Sunday after a game). Every away game wipes out the entire weekend, from Friday afternoon (thus killing those four hours of Friday study) to late Sunday night. Somewhere someone has the impossible dream that you can study on the bus, the airplane, and in a strange hotel room with three teammates. Maybe, but I have trouble believing you can cram in 14 hours of quality time (remember the Friday we killed?) in a hotel room and on a bus.

There's the problem. I don't know the solution, but I do know that you can't afford to slack off, even for a moment. Most assignments keep rolling forward, no matter what your life is like outside the classroom.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

People with Issues

The spring semester has been finished for about two weeks now, and as usual, I get to thinking about the students who should have passed with a good grade, but didn't. From my reading and talking with other faculty, I know this isn't an issue that's restricted to my classrooms. These people are everywhere, and they seem to divide neatly into three groups:

1. Clueless

Some students seem totally bewildered by the whole education process: they don't know why they are here, what they are supposed to be doing, or how to do it. I have to wonder exactly what happened during the previous twelve years of public education.

These people won't be reading this blog, and I'm not writing to them anyhow.

1a. Not on my wavelength

I've always got a couple of truly smart, dedicated students, good writers, who have a strongly-defined personal style that interferes with being an English student. Often these students are artists of some variety, people who get focused on another task (to the exclusion of things such as English papers) and miss deadlines. These are the people who can't quite do what is assigned.

I know something about artists, both visual artists and writers, and often the difference between "starving artist" and someone with a bank account has to do with discipline. A person who can hit deadlines, satisfy publishers, and do what's requested gets to pass college courses and eventually become a professional. That's when the whole thing becomes more than a hobby. This kind of skill is just as important in sculpture class as it is in English

2. People with issues

As a general rule, English departments begin lowering grades for people who have been absent more than one week a semester. That's only two or three class meetings. About 25% of my students can't come anywhere near that. I don't ask too closely because it's none of my business, but this group seems to include:

  • Drunks. Nationwide, something like 25% of college freshmen drink enough to interfere with their academic work. You can't drink hard on Sunday night and be any good in class on Monday. That's all there is to it.
  • Depressed people. I was one of these myself—still am to some extent. Medical and counseling help is available. It's included in the price of your tuition, confidential, and effective. You really don't want to stay that way, do you?
  • Sick people. Dormitory living is incredibly unhealthy. You spend your time close to other sick people. You eat junk food, go to bed late, don't exercise, and forget the most elementary personal hygiene that your mother forced on you. Do what you can to break the cycle. Throw away the moldy pizza box. Eat an orange. Go to bed at a reasonable hour. Do you want to spend your entire college career sick?
  • Messiahs. I always have a couple of students whose role in life is to go home frequently to straighten things out there. That's very noble, but not always a good priority choice. You need to ask whether your intervention really did fix things and whether that's actually more important than passing your courses.

I often get people who vaguely say they "have issues," and it doesn't seem to mean that they dislike me or the course. It usually seems to be related to physical or psychological health. If that's you, get help. You really can't afford to remain as you are.

3. Athletes

We need to face several rock-solid truths:

A. Being on a team consumes an incredible amount of time and energy. Even though you get an excused absence when the team is on the road, the arithmetic never seems to add up, and it's often close to impossible to hit all your deadlines.

B. Coaches don't always get it. Some coaches understand the academic priorities very well, but there are always a few who can't seem to remember that you need to balance practice, weight room, and games with the real business of being a student. They think they hired a professional athlete. You need to pass your courses.

C. Teachers don't always get it. In fact, many teachers neither know nor care whether you are on a team. Out of town game? The lab report is still due on Monday.

D. Confrontation won't help you any. Maybe our American tradition of screaming in the face of baseball umpires is behind all this, but too many athletes think rudeness and intimidation will improve a grade. It simply won't. Want to fail the course? Want to get expelled? Want to get in trouble with the law? Threaten a teacher. Lose the image of the baseball coach screaming at the umpire (and that never worked anyhow). Look up the kinds of offenses that get someone a red card in soccer. Then look up what happens to the player who receives the red card.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Who will stay; who will leave

I haven't written much on this blog recently—in a sense I said it all. I'm near the end of the second semester, though, and looking at a disturbing trend among my students.

Warning! Yet another politically-incorrect comment coming

I'm going to give out several grades that are C minus or below this semester. We have enough grades on the books that even perfection in the next two papers will not save these students from a low grade. That's a shame, because several of them can write. It's a shame, too, because they will probably lose scholarships. Their problem? They cannot attend class. The word seems to be spreading through several teams that attendance is optional. It isn't. Just to put some numbers out: I have a football player with a "D" average, but his papers are averaging 86%. Another is a plain "F" (with a 56% average), but his papers are a 95%. One of my soccer players has a D minus, but the writing is a 75%.

I could go on, but I won't.

These students will get poor grades for the course; they are very likely to think I have been unfair; they might not be back in school next year. Yes, they could do the work. They just couldn't turn in small assignments, be here for quizzes—be here at all!

I don't think these students are the drunks. (I do have a number of drunks who can't show up for class either, but their written work isn't often very good.) These aren't the distracted students who have "issues" that seem to conflict with every class meeting (someone is always sick or dying or needing a ride to the airport). Those students often write like distracted students—giving me a quick rough draft with the language and spelling of a high school lunch table. I'm especially troubled by the smart ones, the good writers, the ones who could make it if they didn't have the idea athletics are the main business here and academics are a poor second.