Steven D. Brewer's blog
I started grading yesterday -- I wrote some SQL queries to extract entries for each of the blog (journal), forum (Perfect Paragraph), and Comment postings that students wrote along with a time stamp. By subtracting the time of the first one and dividing by 604800 (the number of seconds in a week), I could see which week each event happened in. There should have been at least one journal entry, one perfect paragraph, and three comments each week. Minimally. Sometimes students try to write a bunch of stuff at the end to make it seem like they've been engaged all semester. Sorry -- I'm not that stupid.
It's been a rough semester. The students seemed like they were playing chicken with one another: waiting to see who would crack and actually do some work; hoping that someone else would write the stuff they were supposed to write. Tomorrow, when I actually assign grades, its going to be bleak. I've never had so many students with missing work before -- and not just one or two things. I've occasionally had one or two students that didn't complete all of the assignments. This semester, it's much worse than I've ever seen before. But I don't really have a choice. I wrote the syllabus and now I have to follow it. To do anything else wouldn't be fair to the students who did do all the work.
I had a long conversation with Randy today. One of my key goals has always been to put students into a position where they understand that they need to learn stuff and then support them in learning what they need to know. In reading the reflective essays this semester, I see a substantial number of students who said, "I didn't know about X (trees, for example), so it was hard for me to do anything". What? Excuse me? If you don't know about something, you find out! What's the question? Haven't you ever heard of the library? Or the internet? Or the bookstore? The essence of being an educated person is that when you find you don't know something, and you need to, you go find out. I guess the students were playing chicken with me to: waiting to see if I wouldn't fill in the pieces they didn't know for them. And, in many ways, I did.
I've never contributed so much to a class's research project before. I've usually left it to the students to organize and conduct. Since I'd made an arrangement with the tree warden, however, I felt more responsibility than usual, so I wrote the methods for the students and volunteered to go with them into the field to help them collect data. Only two groups took me up on the deal. (Although another group asked me to meet, but then didn't show up and left me sitting for an hour). Sigh...
I'm not sure what to do next time. I had some great students this semester: as interesting and capable as I've ever had. But several of them had terribly disappointing experiences when they got paired up with partners that did nothing. It's hard to know what to do.
Alisa got the boys a copy of Shonen Jump a week ago. In it, Charlie saw an ad for a live-action version of Death Note, a manga and anime series he likes. It was being presented in a limited run for two nights only. When we checked, we found that it was being shown in a theater not too far away, so we reserved tickets on-line, and went to see it with a couple of his friends.
Death Note is about a college student who finds a notebook that allows the finder to kill people. By writing a name in the book, the person named dies. But the writer can also include details of how and when the person will die. There are elements of the impatience of youth and how power corrupts, and the question of whether crime merits the ultimate punishment all wrapped up in a dramatic bundle. I can see why teenagers are fascinated by the show.
Other than three dozen people who turned out on a rainy night for Death Note, the 15 theater complex seemed nearly deserted. I noticed that the airports I travelled through last wek also seemed nearly deserted. I think the recession is already deeper than anyone recognizes. We've entered the rabbit hole and now the question is just how deep does it go...
I arrived home shortly after noon and spent the rest of the day taking deep breaths and thinking how glad I was to be home. I had a nice time -- the people were wonderful and welcoming. And it was very stimulating to see all the interesting things they're doing. It was also interesting to hear their story: they started out working with early adopters, who were excited by the technology and wanted to push it to see how far they could go. Now they spend most of their time working with people from the middle of the curve, who are less interested in cutting edge technology and pedagogy.
When I got home, Alisa had a small gift for me. She'd originally intended to get me "Good vs Evil Unicorns" with "Destructicorn", but then found this one that seemed even better. You can see a bunch of similar sets on this page. The story on the back of the box is even better. "[...] millions of years ago, penguins, snow seals, and koalas ruled the earth. For sustenance, they feasted upon [...] sea mammals. [...] Now, once a year, Narwhal leave their homes to embark on a treacherous migration [...] and leap out of the water to spear the deadly koalas from their perches high in the Eucalyptus trees." Note that it has four magical tusks: the boys like the red one best, which "drains the blood of its enemies".
We also went out to check on our nest of baby bunnies. There seem to be four or five of them in there. They are insanely cute. They're growing really fast and, before too long, are going to have their eyes open. The kids simply love them and its been fun to know that mom is still taking care of them. I hope they make it -- baby bunnies don't have very good chances of survival, in the long run, I suppose.
I'm sitting outside the Velvet Cloak Inn in Raleigh waiting for the taxi. It's a beautiful day to be travelling home.
My talk yesterday seemed to go quite well. When I realized that the guy before me was going to be talking about large course redesign in Chemistry, I worried that my talk would seem repetitive or redundant. I needn't have worried. The themes of what we said were consistent, but we talked about stuff from completely different perspectives: he talked more about the process from an organizational standpoint. His primary issues were the forces that gave rise to the redesign and the organizational difficulties in getting the different stakeholders aligned. It was a very interesting talk, but he didn't really talk much about pedagogy at all. I felt like the audience got a good overview of the issues.
Afterwards, he met with the chemistry faculty and I met with the biologists. That meeting was intense, but good. There was a dean and the director of one of the technology units, plus several faculty, technologists, and course design people. They grilled me on the rationales behind various choices we'd made. They were very focused, because they're just starting a redesign here and are beginning to pilot the use of "clickers". I hope I was able to be helpful.
The chemistry guy said that his meeting was tougher: the group seemed divided and weren't clear on the pedagogy. "They should have attended your talk," he said. I thought that was nice.
I'm in North Carolina for a couple of days, invited by DELTA. They offer a summer institute for faculty on education and I'm speaking tomorrow on course redesign. Afterwards, I get to meet with the Biology faculty for a couple of hours to have a conversation about technology and course redesign. I'm really looking forward to it. Prior to our previous contract, I usually travelled and spoke 2-3 times a year on science education and technology. In the previous contract, though, they refused to fund any professional development, which is how I justified attending conferences to speak. Since then, I've essentially only spoken when I've been invited, which generally happens only once or twice a year.
While I'm here, I've made arrangements to meet with the local Esperanto-speakers. Several of them are out of town, so it sounds like there won't be very many of us. The plan is to go out for dinner -- it sounds like there are several nice places nearby.
The past few days have been extremely busy. George and I have been working on getting the new printer set up, many, many students (including mine) are finishing their projects, and I needed to get my slides put together for the talk. In the end, I did them last night. I had gotten them started weeks ago, but it always seems to come down to the last minute. I can keep polishing them tonight and tomorrow.
I started to use my laptop at Bradley, but when I plugged it into the wall, it didn't recognize that it was plugged in -- even though someone else plugged into the adjacent plug had power. I was worried that I might have to chase around and find a relacement charger. Luckily, it was just a fluke and I'm in good shape.
The hotel is nice, but the wireless signal doesn't quite reach my room. In many ways that's better anyway, because it encourages me to be in the lobby out among the people.
Phil referenced an article recently where all the girls wanted to be princesses. It reminded me of the time Charlie was in a community theatre project. He was about 6, as I recall. There were maybe 15 kids who participated, of whom only two were boys. The guy who ran it had done this sort of thing before and when we saw the performance, I was amazed, because he really let them drive the story. It wasn't a particularly interesting story, because it was just snippets of all the stories that kids are exposed to in our society, but it was fascinating to see what the kids would come up with. The girls were all princesses, except for one who was a queen and another who was an empress. Charlie was a cowboy and the other boy was a pirate. The pirate tried to capture the ship that was carrying all of the royal girls and they were defended by Charlie and eventually the pirate recognized the error of his ways and they were all friends. The kids essentially didn't say anything: they just acted out while the guy narrated for them. But the story had clearly emerged by the guy giving them free rein to be what they wanted to be. Everyone wants to be a princess? OK! Everyone can be a princess! What's wrong with that?
Over the past 10 years, there has been a huge attention to girls in the media: Miyazaki's stories all show powerful girls, Lilo & Stitch, Mulan, Kim Possible, etc, etc, etc. At times I've been a bit disappointed that girls have so much interesting new media available for them whereas there are few that show boys going much beyond traditional roles.
Moreover, they don't address the key aspect of misogyny, not against girls themselves, but against girlish behavior. People get angry when girls want traditional roles for themselves to the point where being feminine is portrayed as bad and weak. This is especially true for boys: I read a book called Whipping Girl that talks about this at great length: Almost everything about being a girl is portrayed as bad in our society. God forbid you should throw "like a girl" -- Even if you *are* a girl, but especially if you're a boy. We're closing off a whole side of human behavior and devaluing it. It's a book well worth reading.
Each year I go to MTA, I have a sense that we could be more effective if we organized sooner. This year, we did a reasonably good job, but there's still room for improvement.
The issue that dominated the convention was organizing to defeat the referendum that would eliminate the income tax in Massachusetts and decimate education and local services. The Committee for Small Government wants to force a reduction in government spending and has hit on an attractive sound-bite: get rid of income taxes. They claim the average savings, per taxpayer would be around $3600. They don't tell you that someone earning a million dollars a year saves $53,000 and that the lost revenue would about equal the discretionary spending in the state budget (ie, the money that the state contributes for local services, like police, fire, and education).
In 1980, a referendum was introduced that limited the amount that property tax could be increased in the state. Proposition Two and One-Half had draconian effects on education. Across the state, nearly 10,000 people were cut and many young teachers were driven out of the profession. Class sizes increased People who had lived through that time spoke eloquently at the MTA meeting about the results. This referendum would probably have similar effects.
At that time, there was a perception that Massachusetts residents paid too much in taxes. This time, I think people are more aware of our precarious circumstances. There is deferred maintenance all across the state: our public buildings are in poor shape already and the roads and bridges are falling apart. The biggest risk is people believing they can "send a message" by voting for the ballot measure. If it passes, it really will be a disaster for the state.
Last night, the janitorial staff came in to strip and wax the floors in my office and in the BCRC. This morning, the room smells like floor cleaner and the floors are all shiny. It was a huge amount of work yesterday to get objects up off the floor and today there will be an equivalent amount of work today to get things put aright. I really like having a clean floor, though.
There is only one class meeting left in the semester. The students are pushing their way toward having final projects finished. The first of the data has been posted in the repository, but there are still groups in a whole variety of intermediate states. I feel for them trying to pull it all together at the end. One student was frustrated by how tedious the data analysis was. Good science almost always involves a lot of tedious work.
Last night, Alisa and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We went to Chez Albert in Amherst and had dinner together. The food was wonderful and I was pleased to see they had my favorite beer, the De Ranke XX Bitter. After dinner, we walked to the common and watched them setting up the carnival rides.
Tomorrow, I head to Boston for the Annual Meeting of the Mass Teachers Association (MTA). I've gone three or four times before. Each year, we've sent a larger and larger contingent from UMass. I am convinced that we derive real value because MTA has real influence in the legislature. This year, there was a proposal to raise our health-insurance premiums that was removed from the budget after substantial pressure. MTA has been particularly good at these kinds of defensive actions. But Higher Ed is just a tiny sliver of the organization that is dominated by rank-and-file public school teachers. By sending a full contingent and being active in the organization, we increase our visibility and keep our issues on the agenda.
It's been fun to get my camera out and take pictures. I have a hard time getting excited about doing photography in the winter. I love the spring, though. The picture to the left was taken just outside the door: our azalea is covered with lichens. In this one picture you can see crustose, foliose, and fruticose lichens. Lichens are cool.
I rode my bike to Mt. Pollux yesterday. I had read that some students were going to meet there to collect data. Unfortunately, I missed them -- maybe their plans changed. They hadn't asked me to come, anyway -- I just was looking for a good bike ride. It was perfect: about 12 miles over rolling terrain. I didn't go very fast, but I made it there and back. It was beautiful weather: warm sun with a cool breeze.
Mt. Pollux was an apple orchard. On the top of the hill are a couple of old maple trees with some benches underneath. There are glorious views of the Holyoke Range and you can see the steeple at Amherst College poking up through the trees. I think you'd be able to see UMass as well, but someone has thoughtfully planted some evergreens in that direction.
It was about a perfect ride. It's uphill all the way to downtown, and then all downhill along the bike trail to West Street. There was a tough (for me) climb up west street and then gently rolling to Mt. Pollux. The ride back was gentle at first, then the long climb up the bike trail, and then downhill through town and campus.
I went with another group of students on Saturday to collect data. I took some pictures, in addition to the research images. It sounds like another group is going out this afternoon, so I'm planning to ride my bike to meet them.
One of the things I love about doing research is how I start looking at one thing, I notice more stuff about everything. Without projects, I have a tendency to blunder around without noticing what's happening around me. When I get started on a project like this, I'm reminded of how much I've forgotten in terms of tree and plant identification. I don't know the first thing about identifying lichens.
That's actually not quite true. I do remember the first thing: the three basic forms of lichens: crustose, foliose, and fruticose. In searching around for ways to identify lichens, I found The Macrolichens of New England (Memoirs of The New York Botanical Garden, Volume 96) . It sounded perfect, so I bought it instantly. I don't know if it will arrive in time to help us with our projects, but hopefully, we can turn around and do lichens again another semester.
Over this week and next, the semester reaches its climax. On Monday, I tried to get my students organized for collecting data, but we didn't really get everything set until Wednesday. Last night, I went with one group to collect data at the East Amherst Common. I'll go with another group tomorrow. The other groups haven't contacted me -- I suspect that means they'd just as soon not have me go with them. The goal is to have the data collected by Monday, which will give us a full week to analyze the data and write the final reports. It would have been good to have another week, but I'm really excited by the data we're collecting.
This semester, the students chose to look at lichens on trees. I love lichens -- I've always thought they were really cool. We're collecting imagery of lichens on trees on town property in Amherst. This is a critical year to collect the imagery, because the coal-fired cogeneration plant on campus is shutting down this year, being replaced by a new oil and gas fired plant. The imagery we collect now can serve as a baseline for studying the changes in air quality associated with the new plant. And we're looking at a bunch of other factors: distance and orientation of roads, traffic, north-south orientation, species, and distance to other trees. There is real potential here for publishable work.
We had a great party in the department to celebrate Zane receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award. The chairman said a few words and then Randy and I each spoke a bit. It was such a treat to see Zane surrounded by her colleagues and students. And friends -- friends all. I sometimes get frustrated by the University and the senseless way they approach things and then I remember who I get to work with. Zane and Randy and Elizabeth... And George and Chris and Robbie... And Tom and Tom and Sally and Brian and Elsbeth... And everyone. Well, not quite everyone. But I really love my job. What wonderful people and what a great place I have to work.
Today, Alisa, the boys and I attended a band concert by the Minuteman Marching Band. I had received the tickets for participating in the University's charity campaign. The marching band is quite large -- 375 -- and plays very well. I thought the boys might appreciate seeing a really good band, since they're both playing band instruments. I was pleased to see that one of my students is in the marching band.
I rode my bike there. It's great to have a bike on campus. You can get places faster than any other way (although sometimes I dream of having a zip-line from a high building on campus straight to my house.
There is a house coming on sale in the neighborhood. It's one of my favorite houses in the neighborhood. It's a small house surrounded by cedars and mountain laurel with a lovely japanese maple by the driveway. Zane and I walked up and looked at it on Friday. A neighbor tried to sell the house to Zane -- they'd be happy with any owner that won't rent the house to students. I would be great to have Zane as a neighbor, although I don't think they're quite ready to buy a house yet.
After a year of supporting a poster printer, I've gotten fed up with people who still try to make posters using Powerpoint. Powerpoint may be a fine application for some things, but it really sucks for making posters. Yet people keep using it. I've tried and tried to get people to not use it and they don't listen. They make their poster with Powerpoint anyway and then come and say, "I'm really sorry, because I know you hate Powerpoint". For-once-and-for-all, let's get this straight: Steven Brewer Does Not Hate Powerpoint.
Daniel and I got out for a good bike ride each day of the long weekend. After the 3 mile ride to Jones and back on Saturday, we rode 5 miles on Sunday, to Big Y and back. On Monday, we rode around 12 miles to the Sugar Shack and back, with a detour to Watroba's. Daniel had wanted to get some of the wonderful chocolate milk at the Mapleline Farm store, but they were closed. He ended up getting a hot dog and a bottle of chocolate-milk-like substance from a giant corporation packaged in a plastic bottle.
Watroba's is good to have. I wish they were slightly larger, had more refrigerated goods, and were actually on the bus line, rather than a half-mile away from the nearest stop. I don't think there's any way to take public transportation to a grocery store without having to walk a long way and/or wait for infrequent busses. Watroba's is close enough to ride to when the weather is decent, but it's hard to imagine riding a bike to the store in the dead of winter. I guess when we're huddling by the stove trying to keep warm because we can't afford to buy heating oil, getting some exercise riding a bike to the store won't sound so bad.
Today, I rode my bike into work and home for lunch. I'm not sure I could ride much farther, though, because a certain part of my anatomy is sore and it's not my shoulders. A few days rest, and I'll be ready to go toughen up some more. My next goal is to ride to Northampton so I can see the rail trail connection between the Norwottuck and Northampton trails.
Yesterday, Daniel and I rode to the Jones Library. We met Lucy, who brought Penny in the car, and we took our usual walk through town. While Lucy and Daniel went into the library, Penny and I sat on a bench outside with the bicycles. Penny usually hops up on the bench with me and leans against me. We enjoyed the beautiful spring weather and watched people walk by -- Penny taking particular interest in the canine passersby. One fellow walked by and glanced at us. Then he looked again. He could see Penny and me and two bicycles. He walked over and asked, "How did you bring the dog? Does she ride a bike?" I admitted that my confederates were in the library and that Penny could not ride a bike.