“The Four Hour Work Week” and “The Happy Academic”

Several months ago, I mentioned that I was starting to read Timothy Ferriss’ “self-help” lifestyle/work/get rich (sorta) book The 4-Hour Work Week, and I finally got around to finishing it the other day/week. I should mention it’s not that I read that slow– I just have other things to do/read, and I read Ferris’ book in 20 minute or less bursts while on the bike at the gym.

The short version: I am not a Ferris convert/disciple, but it’s an entertaining book with occasionally good tips, some of which sorta/kinda connect with the happy academic lifestyle.  Much more after break.

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A few thoughts on grading (on the eve of a big push)

I have planned badly grading-wise this term, something you would think I would have figured out after teaching for 22 years.  Basically, I’m teaching three writing classes, and all of them– the first year students, the juniors/seniors, and the grad students– all have some significant writing project due this week.  I know.  Brilliant.

Anyway, there were a couple of pretty humorous and wise posts about grading out there on the blogosphere that I thought I’d reflect on before I dive into the breach tomorrow.  First, there is this post from the “not that kind of doctor” blog, “the five stages of grading,” which went “viral” (sorta) and seems to have taken the blogger by surprise.  Then there’s “Procrastigrading; or, How to Grade Efficiently” from Nine Kinds of Pie, another blog I had not previously read.  The five stages of grading = the five stages of grief (kinda funny), and “procrastigrading” is a technique where one collects work from students and waits for six days to grade it, doing it all in one marathon session.  This is advice I inadvertently follow far too often.

In any event, mostly to remind myself for the grading frenzy that starts tomorrow, a few thoughts/self-reminders about grading:

  • When it comes to the teaching of writing, it seems to me that commenting/assessing/grading writing is a part of the teaching process, unfortunately.  I say “unfortunately,” because while I often like reading student writing and I think it would be totally wrong to pass this grading off onto someone else and/or to not really do it all, I admit that grading can often times be the least interesting part of the teaching process.  Having said that….
  • …. I have heard all kinds of stories of cutting corners in very dubious ways.  One of my very senior colleagues told me a story about how he was very pressed for time one term and limited his commenting on student papers to circling what he thought was the strongest sentence in an essay and underlining what he thought was the weakest.  I have often thought about how much easier my life would be if I simply wrote “good!” on the top of all the assigned essays and simply given everyone an A.  I’ve heard stories of faculty (not here, but I suspect it’s happened) hiring grad students or part-timers to grade stuff on the side.  I haven’t done any of these things and I wouldn’t, but that is not to say I’ve never been tempted.
  • Effectively and efficiently commenting/grading on student essays is something that takes a lot of practice, and on the chance that there is a newer teacher or a grad student of mine reading this who has just spent 10 hours dealing with their first big stack of first year composition essays, it does get easier.  Honestly.
  • The truest thing that Phillip “Nine Kinds of Pie” Nel writes is that “Grading devours all the time you give it.  You need to limit its diet.”  Very very true.  Toward that end, I tend to use two techniques (well, three, if I count to the too frequent “procrastigrading” approach of waiting until too long to start grading a batch of papers in the first place.)  The first technique, which is based entirely on the “Procrastination hack” from 43 folders, is using a timer.  I give myself 10 minutes at a time to read/comment on a student project, a time limit that is usually not enough but is often close enough to comment on an essay.  So, doing this 10+2*5 approach means I can comment and grade about five essays an hour.  That’s still not exactly “super fast,” but it makes things a little more manageable.
  • The second major technique is to remind myself what I’m grading/commenting for in the first place, and this is the one that has really developed with my experience and confidence as a teacher.  When I first started teaching– and really, for the first 2/3rds or more of my time as a teacher– I would write a lot of comments on student essays, including pointing out errors and/or offering editing advice and (often lengthy) end comments that were as much about justifying my grade in my own mind as anything else.  In other words, I wrote a lot on a student’s essay to reassure myself about the grade I had assigned and not to offer advice about improvement. Well, at some point in my process, I decided that this self-justification didn’t help students and wasted my time.  So nowadays, I write very little as far as editorial/line-by-line sort of commentary (more with first year students, though), and I make it as clear as I possibly can to students that I am always happy to meet with them in person to talk about both my grading and about ideas for revision.  Arguably, not all students who could/should take me up on this and then they are left with my less than complete comments.  But these less satisfied students are not the ones who are seeking copious commenting in the first place, and I have seen the problem of commenting too much on student work often enough to convince me that the students who want more comments will ask, and the students who don’t ask probably don’t want that many comments in the first place.

Cynical?  Perhaps, a little.  But the process can make you a little cynical after a while.

Which reminds me:  a little reading and soon to bed to prepare for a three or so day long grading bender!

Yet another miscellaneous links round-up post

Still have lots of pages open in my browser, and this morning seems like as good as any a morning to try to clear that:

  • From Jakob Nielsen, “Children’s Websites: Usability in Designing for Kids,” which cbd posted a while back.  I don’t always agree with Nielsen’s proclamations about all things internets, but this seems pretty interesting and potentially useful for English 444.
  • Speaking of which:  some of my teaching evaluation reviews from this last summer’s section of English 444 and English 328 were pretty bad, and I think it’s mostly because the 7.5 week summer term makes students kind of crabby, and because this is another short term that comes after the short spring term.  I try to warn students, try to repeat often the mantra of “it isn’t half as long, it’s twice as fast,” but often to no avail.  Next year/this school year, I’m scheduled for spring term teaching, so we’ll see if that makes much difference, and I am also tentatively scheduled to teach a section of 444 this winter as an overload.
  • “Project explores potential for use of iPad in education at Penn State,” which is another story about what the headline suggests.  The one thing that’s a little different/unusual is I sort of know a couple of the people involved with this project.
  • Tweet Library is a software for keeping a Tweet library on an iPad, which is all fine and good, though I personally would prefer to have it on my desktop.
  • Here’s a pretty interesting assignment from Bill Wolff at Rowan University, “wrtf10 assignment 2: mixin’, mashin’, and remixin’.” There’s a couple of different things I can steal/borrow here for stuff students are doing this term in both 328 and 121.
  • I don’t know exactly how much this matters, but here’s a link to a blog that links to a site called Haltadefinizione, which has super-duper high resolution/detailed images of some famous paintings.

My iPad, a (little over) six months later

A few thoughts on iPad ownership, just over six months since it came out and I bought one (well, Leslie bought one for me and I bought it from her), in no particular order (other than I have piled up some links as of late on this):

  • I’ve shown this to students in my in-class version of English 121, to my informal gatherings with grad students, and with other students I’ve met with in my office for one reason or another, and they are generally unimpressed.  I’m not entirely sure what that means, other than there is still a fairly hard-core less than interested adopters out there in a segment of the population I would think might be interested in these things.
  • The iPad has taken off at a lightening-quick pace.  At this rate, a) my students will be sold on the usefulness of these things soon, and b) textbook companies had better start thinking about ways to take advantage of these things.
  • The iPad is not a substitute for a computer, and now that the fall term is well underway, I find myself using my laptop a lot more than I did over the spring/summer.  There are certain things that I need to do with my laptop in my teaching that would be more trouble than it is worth with my iPad.  I mention this in part because I had a link at one point (I think I misplaced it now) where a college was giving students the choice of getting (as part of their “package” of some sort– this was a small and expensive school) either an iPad or a laptop and the college was surprised at the number of students who wanted the laptop.  Well, DUH! My iPad can do lots of cool things, but not as many as my laptop or my desktop.
  • The iPad can create content, and here’s a link to a good article about “10 Ways People Are Using The iPad To Create Content, Not Just Consume It.” What’s interesting here is that the people who are using the iPad to create tend not to be writers– that is, the iPad is really good for painting, mixing music, editing photos, DJ-ing, etc.
  • That said, here’s a good and interesting link called “iPad Apps For Writers.” I had my own thoughts of the iPad as a writerly device way back when, but I think that purpose and “space” is everything here.  As I wrote before, I do much/most of my writing (including this post) at my desk and on a desktop computer.  As I’ve mentioned already, I tend to use a laptop at school most often because of its functionality and its usefulness for typing stuff in a meeting or whatever.  But I do like taking my iPad and my keyboard to a coffee shop once in a while, too.
  • I read on my iPad a fair amount (see below), but those bastards at WIRED are still dead to me.  And, from what I read, there’s still a lot of fuzziness and confusion about how a newspaper or magazine subscription via the iPad might work.  This is a shame.  The publishing industry dubbed this thing the Jesus tablet because they saw it as a way of saving them, and it just might– if the greedy publishing bastards and the greedy Apple bastards could just come to term.
  • What do I use my iPad for, you ask?  I like the email interface quite a bit.  I do some light web browsing, and while the lack of Flash is an issue, not huge.  Weatherbug.  Facebook. Kayak (great app). Calendar.  Facebook.  Keynote (probably more than Pages). I like “Reader” as an RSS feed reader quite a bit too.  But…
  • … my “killer app” remains iAnnotate, and while my students generally don’t get the point of this thing, when I show them iAnnotate and the PDFs I’ve assigned for our classes, there is a bit of a light bulb moment.  It is an excellent app.  Seriously, this is a revelation/revolution for me about reading these kinds of documents.  I’ll never work with nasty paper photocopies again.
  • And I like the Kindle and the iBooks apps quite a bit too, especially while reading in bed in the dark.  Which I’m soon going to go do.