Category Archives: College

Showing Teeth: Science Night at the University

The brown teeth I’m seeing, fossilized in rock, accompanied by the rest of the animal (of the enantiornithes group of avians), were part of a living bird more than 120 million years ago. The sharp image of teeth nearly fills up the theater-sized screen, and I hear a student I know say that they look scary. (Her fear presumably is of the bite, not the existence of the teeth.) I can’t resist the urge to tell her that they are actually quite small; I bet 4 teeth, maybe more, would fit on her fingernail. The whole Mesozoic bird attached to its teeth is the size of a common songbird today—close to the length and width of a human heart.

Sure enough, as if Dr. Chiappe overhears me, the slide changes from a close-up fossil image to show a photographer at work on the specimens. Her head peers down some anteater-camera device (not unlike a microscope) to take impeccable photographs. Slides of this photographer’s work display the intricacies in fossils of early known avians caught in stone in the Jehol Biota region of China. Feathers, soft tissues, more than I ever expected to see of an animal this old. I join in the chorus of gasp and wow slide after slide, as artifacts older than I can rightfully imagine are “in front of me” in color and detail as if I were the one looking through that camera. We are a group of students, staff, faculty, and community members gathered in the dark to hear about the past so that we may better understand the now.

My friends and I will agree later that the experience would not be the same without the inclusion of the photographer-at-work on these tiny bodies to give us perspective. We had only vague notions of size before we saw her working. A photograph is not a fossil, but they act in similar ways.

After this talk, I will walk out arm in arm with my partner, and drive home to watch the 2016 Iowa Caucus results unfold during hours of political TV coverage. All of those birds squawking, their colors showing. I love primary season and the endless stream of candidate updates. But this primary season has already felt so long, the wingspan of an eagle instead of a goldfinch (or perhaps an enantiornithe). What hasn’t changed in 4 or 8 years is the glossy surface of political image we view through a filter, like a photo. As loud as the candidates are, they are a 2D surface, not a reality in my living room. I seek them out as artifacts that bring me closer to understanding the now, and I realize too that there is always a gap between what we can see and what we can touch.


Listening to Dr. Chiappe speak in the Student Cinema, I write “Jehol birds reveal an unexpected degree of ecological specialization.” I will wonder if I got it wrong when I look at my notes later: did I mean to write ecological diversity? But when I search ‘ecological specialization,’ it’s a thing.

The birds have teeth but may not be using them. The phrase comes formed like a prophecy in my mind, but it sounds like a political sound bite.


It’s not something about which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking—the fate of scientific research intended by museum staff in the USA being possibly thwarted due to political breaks with countries around the globe. [But] The winner of the Presidential Election may instigate a butterfly effect on the work that people like Luis Chiappe can do a year from now.

A Democratic Iowa winner will only be declared after I have gone to bed.

I won’t read my notes from Science Night for a week.

When I do pick them up, I’ll remember that the night’s last question came from a young man, a student at the university. He stood up and asked Dr. Chiappe, “What’s the hardest part of studying these?” (presumably including the excavating and cleaning and analyzing of avian fossils).

Dr. Chiappe smiled. “The hardest part of studying these fossils isn’t scientific at all.” Even famous Dinosaur Institute Directors worry about politics.

The Chinese have teeth.


If you ask most people what archeology is, the results would show we tend to think of it outside the reach of politics (a person standing in either field would be close enough to see the other, perhaps with the help of a lens, but not close enough to touch). Examining slides of photographed fossils and participating in televised political rituals on the same night is like peering at evidence to the contrary. In reality, there is only one field where everything is connected and disrupted by everything else.







The C Word

I failed today. Just now, in the office.

I overheard a conversation and I didn’t step in to say how inappropriate and offensive it was. So, I’m going to take a lower risk maneuver and write it here.

Overheard at  work:

Man one: Thinking about it makes me so mad again. There’s a four letter word for someone like her. It rhymes with bundt.

Man two: I wonder what that could be.

Man one: Yeah, but I typically call women muffins instead, so I don’t have to cuss.

Man two: But why muffin?

Man one: Well,…

…and so forth.

I know many women have reclaimed the word cunt. Thanks in part to the book of the same name and to the Vagina Monologues, cunt’s use is similar to my use of ‘queer’ to describe myself and my friends who also identify with the term. But still, there is a way to use the word for empowerment and respect and a way to use the word as a demeaning insult. To use it intentionally with malice.

The fact of this conversation–even though they never even said the word–open, loud, in the middle of an office, and around women, is more infuriating than the use or discussion of ‘cunt’ being used.

Along similar lines, I’ve tried to take the word “dick” as an expletive out of my vocabulary–I say jerk instead; it’s more accurate to what I mean.

And, it hasn’t been lost on me that ‘dick’ is more commonly-accepted, a “lighter” word to use than ‘cunt’ in similar instances. Is this because it’s more offensive to be a nasty woman? Since women, after all, are supposed to be sweet and men are supposed to be jerks.


The truth about empathy in teaching

As I sat there, reconstructing the cheekbone and eye socket of my clay face, I knew I still wasn’t doing it right. I couldn’t visualize how to build up everything around the eyes so that it looked more human, more real. Sure enough, my Advanced 3D studio art professor came around another time before class was over and poked his big thumbs deep into her skull.

That’s where the eyes should be.” He must have told me three or four times exactly what I was doing wrong. And, of course, using his thumbs, he would try to help correct it. Then he would walk away.


Visualizing the types of writing that I now ask my undergrad students to do is a big part of the way I explain and teach when assigning new projects. I also draw in a notebook as the students talk in my office hours, translating what they’re saying into a visual shorthand so that we can look at the shape of the draft they are crafting. The topics, for all of my students, for all of their projects, are self-inflicted.


In undergrad studio art classes, I was increasingly unable to create anything for art’s sake. Way more devoted to abstract ideas and the process of making art than the end result, I struggled in assignments when I didn’t have an immediate concept to build from. I never trusted myself to simply create a “draft” and then make it better through revision. In fact, I don’t think I learned to properly revise writing until the end of grad school. My favorite studio pieces–both of mine and others–were those that were heavy on concept and visually intriguing. After taking an atelier at NYU between my junior and senior years, I really understood what that meant. My heart wasn’t in the things I did without concept, and they suffered.


Revision is the hardest part of writing, and it’s a foreign concept for students who’v been told their whole lives that they write well, until they take some kind of creative writing class, or are forced to do revisions in a senior seminar or other “super hard” class. I’m convinced that it’s the revisions innate in these courses that make students fall in love with [and paradoxically hate] writing, at least the ones who continue to do it well. Revisions turn people into good writers.

Today I assigned a braided narrative project in my advance writing class–made up of junior and senior undergrad students. Before class started, a draft of their previous assignment was due in an online dropbox–a spiraled essay. The spiral has traditionally been the hardest concept for the students to master, so I try every semester to make my explanations better, more thorough, to assign better examples and have more discussions about the spiral in selected readings. I know I’m not completely failing because there is at least one someone every semester that writes a spiraled essay on the first attempt; however, most drafts have to be heavily revised into a spiral once they’ve been turned in–using the revision grade up on mastering the shape instead of focusing on polish.


Today, as I went to the board and drew the familiar two-tone wave recreated in Bascom’s “Picturing the Personal Essay”–like a simplified and horizontal 2D representation of DNA–I saw recognition in their faces. For braided narratives, a writer has to submerge one storyline while talking about another. Sumberge is a good visual cue because the narrative is simply out of sight, not out of mind. A good braided narrative will utilize jargon of one narrative in descriptions of the other, to keep the relevancy of one story to the other alive in the reader’s mind. Swtich, rinse, repeat.

“What would happen if one’s ‘spiraled’ draft was actually a braid?”

“One would have to revise.” I smiled in condolence at the class–hoping that they were better than I had been as an undergrad.  At least a few students immediately understood that the essays they had turned in for me were in fact braids, not spirals, and in a week’s time when I hand them back, some of the shock will be dissipated.


I never correctly deepened the eye sockets of fake-clay-face. Even though I trusted my art prof, I didn’t trust what I couldn’t visualize myself. I ended up making a cartoonish version of a face in relief on a rectangular slab of background that I later had to bronze. We were learning the lost Renaissance art. There was no real assignment prompt for the bronze piece, and at the time, I still really needed prompts. So I settled on something I thought would be difficult to render in clay: a face concentrating, with one eye puckered closed, looking at something just past her thumb. Her hand would be in relief, coming out of the bottom right corner of the frame and her face would take up a lot of the left half. I had at first thought that maybe she was threading a needle–that’s what the face portrayed, but I never ended up creating a needle to go in her hand. Ultimately, the art object that resulted from me learning the lost wax method process was a huge failure. It wasn’t beautiful, accurate, or useful. And, it was heavy. Cast in bronze, my relief face-with-hand-in-slab was an ugly reminder that I was not cut out for this. The resulting 12″ x 18″ (and roughly 10 lbs) failure spent some years outside in my mother’s flower beds before I finally got rid of it.


“So then what is the difference between a spiral and a braid?”

I drew a random constellation of different shapes on the board under the diagram of the submerged braid. And then I connected the different ‘dots’ one at time, drawing a spiral as a I went, and explained that with each new piece of your spiral, you are still talking about the same concept. “The pieces may seem random at first, but you connect each one back to the larger idea. There is one main topic, and you keep approaching it in different ways so that readers travel with you, piecing together their own understanding until all the segments are there and a fully developed image of your one concept shows up–like a picture in a connect-the-dots-coloring book.”

After class, a student wants to talk about using his path of religion and spirituality for the braided narrative and asks if that could be two braids.

“It sounds like one narrative to me. Think about the braided narrative assignment like a really long extended metaphor or comparison of two objects that at first glance do not seem alike. Except, instead of objects, both are narratives. Once you have your first narrative in mind (for you: the story of your spirituality, how you came to be here), consider what other thing in the universe moves in the same way as that first narrative, or has similar characteristics. Surprise your reader. Alternate between the stories, using juxtaposition, to highlight their similarities.”

To me, this is a discovery moment, a moment when I feel I’ve stumbled across a new way of explaining something I’ve explained many times before. I try to harden it in amber so that I can pull it out in a later semester and use it again. But almost as quickly as my moment of victory came, and the student walked out the door seemingly on course, I started to second guess myself.


I see myself in my undergrad students. I see a good writer that doesn’t know how yet to be a good writer–and I don’t take it for granted that that kind of student is always on the verge of going elsewhere, of deciding her most recent failure is a sign to get out of this wordy mess. So, I want to always be saying the one thing that fits in the lock and opens the door. I want the essays I assign to be understood on some primal level, so that we can dig easily with our fingers below the surface where the meaning is submerged.

In grad school nonfiction workshops, I had one professor who liked to use a found metaphor of “reading tea leaves” when talking about crafting CNF. I heard and overheard her use this comparison several times with various students. It is a good comparison. Yet there are two true things I know about it: I only partially understood what she meant at the time, and I’ve never once used her comparison myself as an instructor of writing.

And so the real discovery is that the types of explanations instructors and professors latch onto are most likely the ones that help our own selves understand the concepts better. And if we don’t keep looking for more, we’ll only be teaching ourselves. I think this may factor into “The Source of Bad Writing”–or its equivalent in face-to-face instruction. I may see myself in my students, but I should continuously search for who they are when explaining concepts.


How does seeing yourself in the people you work with or work for help you empathize and understand them? Are there limitations in your field for doing this?

Surprising Students

Last fall I heard a story about an international student who had the audacity to stop by a prof’s office hours and ask “how many cuts” she permitted. It wasn’t a surprise to find out the student had already missed a couple classes and wasn’t doing that well in class participation. It also wasn’t a surprise to hear that the professor sent a scathing email to said student (and copied others). Not only had he misinterpreted how to approach her and what to ask, but he also had the temerity to leave as quickly as he came, without discussing his negligible performance in class. While I feel for both the professor and the student in this situation, the professor’s many-paragraphed response–especially the spite with which it was delivered–was uncalled for and didn’t further any purposes beyond making the student feel small. It must have felt great to write. I know because I’ve written responses like it, right before I’ve erased them and rewritten a response more appropriate to my rhetorical situation.


“Teach, Don’t Mock” is a Jared Berezin article up on Inside HigherEd that contemplates the student side of email. In terms of function, these student interactions “shed light on [a] student’s rhetorical awareness, or lack thereof, amidst a moment of self-advocacy.” As soon as I started reading, I felt the familiar Us vs Them costume cape pressing on my shoulders.

It immediately took me back to a FaceBook share from a fellow teacher I read a few months ago. It was a spunky This-Is-How-It-Is post that seemed to address students about their annoying behaviors, but in actuality it was by a prof for other profs. It whined about true things, things that ARE annoying (such as missing class and coming in the next day with “Did I miss anything important?” on their lips), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like being at happy hour with a colleague, a chance to grow closer with the teaching community by sharing a common enemy. I had been the victim of all the annoying student types in the piece, and I felt vindicated reading it, like my frustrations were heard. But they weren’t really heard. Not by the people who commit the crimes in the first place. And I felt icky about sharing it on my own wall (and I didn’t) because I want my moments of negativity about my job and my students to be fleeting. I want them to stay in the bar, spoken into my beer, and then drained with my beverage. And this is why I kept reading Berezin’s post.

He is a kindred spirit–someone who “rather than passively requiring explicit instructions on how to communicate effectively in every situation, [wants] students to proactively harness their rhetorical confidence when advocating for themselves in a variety of contexts.” (Proactively Harness should have been my nickname in college. It wasn’t. I learned the hard way just like many of my students are doing now.) He advocates for “guerilla teaching” during email responses that catches students “by surprise…likely mak[ing] the interaction all the more memorable.” And he acknowledges that time is not on our side and probably hinders those of us who would respond more analytically to our students. But he challenges himself anyway.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed


I caught a student by surprise once.

In the fall of 2012 I had a student emailing back and forth with me about a Dropbox assignment that wasn’t showing up. She emailed to see if I got it, I told her I hadn’t. She emailed me again, a few days later having not received my reply email (the whole university email system had been messed up for a few hours). I wrote back again, quickly, saying that I had received her email but not her assignment and that I was going to start grading them that evening. (I was intentionally not being explicit about whether she would receive a zero or not or whether she could send me the digital assignment another way or not.) Then she asked if she should email me the assignment, which is when I wanted to explode a little. Instead, this is what I wrote:

Yes, an attachment with the first email you sent would have been wise if you were worried about me not having it. Any time you are worried that a professor doesn’t have your work, it is best to attach the work asap to the email where you ask instead of waiting for a reply. It’s like asking for forgiveness over permission. (From experience, I know that I’m more willing to consider assignments via email if the student sends the work along as he/she is asking if I’ll take it.)

The email had a smaller less practical paragraph after this one too which offered my sympathy about her computer and D2L struggles as well as information on which web browsers were preferred and how to locate the computer gurus on campus. I had failed her in my response the first couple of times. But I got it right this time. Or so I thought. I knew she was concerned, but she didn’t email me back. The next day I reached out again, having reread my other email.

I’m worried that my tone via email is harsher than I intend it to be. I didn’t mean to offend you if I did, but I am still on the look out for your draft!

She emailed a long (for a student) reply–maybe a ten-line paragraph or so. She admitted she was taken aback by my email but mainly due to stress and that I was “right” and that she wasn’t thinking and then she broke the wall: she let me in to her struggle a little by giving me details about her intersectionality. She opened up. I couldn’t tell if it was merely a forced confession or a truer moment of connection.

In the weeks that followed, she wasn’t as participatory in class as she had been before. I was worried that I’d turned one of my hardest working students against me, all for the sake of teaching her a lesson outside the classroom. I was careful around her in class until finally there wasn’t any class anymore. The only things left were for them to turn in their final projects (via dropbox) and, should they choose, to turn in a printed reflection on the course outcomes and what they really got out of the class this semester (as an extra credit assignment). Her reflection piece was the most thoughtful one. It discussed each of the outcomes and, while it didn’t bring up our email chain mid semester, it focused on the transferable concepts and skills she realized she was already using for her other classes.

Perhaps it was a simple case of a wonderful student, but I’d like to think that my “being real” with her was part of what made her get so much out of the course.

In semesters since, I’ve been more intentional about my guerilla teaching responses during the first few weeks, when I’m getting emails from my new students about questions easily answered by reading the syllabus that’s been posted online since I opened the class website three weeks early. I can’t really know if my efforts are helping their future teachers get fewer poorly constructed, unaddressed, unsigned, un-subjected emails about questions whose answers are just a click or two away on a website, but I know I am getting fewer. And that makes it more than worth it.




Point Taken

So I’m sitting at my “desk,” which is a counter-height square table off the side of my living room, and I’m going back and forth between Word Track Changes and the online learning management system for school (we use D2L), commenting on dropboxed transcripts from my upperlevel students. The transcripts are a step in the process toward writing a shaped profile piece on either or person, a place, or a concept of their choosing.

During the read-through of the transcript for a piece about the downsides to hive-mind and information overload (among other things) that Facebook controls, my phone lights up–four different times–to update me about people commenting on a FB post upon which I’d also commented.

Why I haven’t graded your papers

This week, from this moment last week until now, has been grueling. Besides all the classes themselves and the life business of being a fiance, a cat mom, and a person who likes a clean kitchen, since roughly 3pm last Tuesday, I have graded three sets of class papers, started a fourth set, commented on thesis statements and proposed outlines for the next drafts, graded some online quizzes and in-class daily assignments, suffered through the stress of handing back the poorer first-assignments, and hemmed and hawed through class preparation, TA-meetings, all-college meetings, and the sad Bears game on Sunday. This is nothing new, and to many teachers, this is really nothing new, nothing unique about which to complain. What is different is me.

Six years ago, I wouldn’t be taking this small amount of time out of my day–still in my sweat pants T-minus 2 hours from class and counting–to even reflect on my mental state. As soon as I would have put down one assignment set, I’d automatically grab the next and force myself to squeeze every minute until my next class or meeting into grading productivity, knowing it was futile. Knowing there is no way I would spontaneously learn how to thoughtfully comment on each draft in one fourth of the time. Knowing that even though I might get through one or two more papers before forcing myself to put on professional-esque clothes and get to campus, I’m still going to be up as late as it takes to get all of the rest finished after all the students have left campus and I’m left alone with my coffee cup and a pen.

But not this week. Even though [I still haven’t finished class prep for tomorrow] I will need to teach class for three hours yet today, and even though I have 16 papers left to grade before 10am, some baked goods to make for a noon meeting, a proposal to plan for the Art Department visit that is double booked with the noon meeting tomorrow, and a cat meowing at my ankle, I have finally arrived at that special place in every professor’s trajectory where (sleep + health) >  the grading deadline. Writing is about my health these days. It’s not a necessity, and it certainly isn’t art. And that’s okay too.

And of course, as I type this, my mind is ever negotiating time and the physics of how much I will get done before I allow myself to sleep tonight. I might get it all done. (And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve given into grades-are-more-important-than-you mantra that slipped in when we teachers let our guards down.) But I’m, in the immortal words of Elizabeth Bishop, Write It!, going to be okay with taking half an hour today to not grade. To watch the minutes go by and see the giant stack of grading inescapable but not ineffable or incapacitating.