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in the winter sun

maura @ 12:26 pm

I’ve been carrying this post around with me in my head all week, an incredibly busy beginning of the semester at work, too worn out in the evenings to bang coherent sentences together. This time last weekend I was in Delaware, having driven down first thing in the morning with a good friend to go to the funeral of our favorite teacher from high school. She was only 59; her kids were only in their 20s. I’m tearing up again even as I type this.

The small group of folks that I’m close friends with from high school first heard the news at the end of the spring a year and a half ago: cancer, of the pancreatic kind, prognosis uncertain. I had trouble processing it — my teacher had actually visited Brooklyn the prior year and my friend and I had met her for dinner w/our partners and kids — how could she possibly be sick? I was upset and angry and sad. I wrote a bloggy screed that I never posted about how stupid cancer is and about some of the other friends we have who’ve had bouts with it (and, thankfully, survived). I wrote a letter to my teacher expressing my concern, letting her know how much she meant to me, and offering support in any way I could. I got a letter back from her promising that she’d fight the good fight.

She was an incredibly energetic and optimistic person and she fought hard, but right after new year’s we all heard that she’d taken a turn for the worse. I sent her emails, one with a crazy photo of the back of her head as she was driving a small bus full of a group of us during a Spring Break trip to work at a homeless shelter in Richmond, VA. My friends and I emailed each other photos and reminiscing, too, my favorite (from an old yearbook) of her sitting cross-legged on her desk in class, hands up to emphasize a point. I can actually hear her voice when I look at that picture.

And so it was that I found myself in the car on the NJ Turnpike again (we’d gone down to visit my family the prior weekend) on the way to her funeral mass at the new theater building at my old school. It was lovely and sad. Gus asked me later if I’d cried (yes). There were hundreds of people there that morning, and had been hundreds the night before for another memorial service. Former students from when she began teaching 30 years ago up to the present were there. The school streamed the service live and I later heard that folks on Facebook said they watched from afar. She was that good.

Rereading what I wrote when she first got sick, some of it seems salvageable and still true:

If I can write at all I owe it to this high school teacher for sure. It’s in her English classes that I have the first clear memory of really writing — not just reporting on what I’d read but actually thinking through the words and putting those thoughts on paper, albeit imperfectly. I don’t have many artifacts of my work from high school, the perils of growing up before ready access to computers. But I did keep some of the photocopies of short stories we read in her classes, many of which were my first introduction to Borges, Barthelme, Garcia-Marquez and others and had a lasting impact on my reading and writing habits.

It’s only in reflecting now that I’ve realized what a huge influence she’s been on my teaching, too. She had only just started teaching a few years before I got to high school, but I’m sure she’s the same in the classroom now as she was then. Her classes were fun and interesting because she’s fun and interesting, and her energy and enthusiasm for literature and writing made her classes enjoyable even as they were challenging. Thinking about how my own teaching has evolved over the years, I can only conclude that whatever success I have in the classroom now owes a huge debt to those high school English classes.

All of the conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances from high school center around the same theme. At a time when we were all navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood and were not always the nicest people to be around, in her teaching and friendship she always respected and valued us. She was a great teacher because of what she always did for her students: treated them as people with ideas worth having, gave them space for their own voices and creativity, and inspired them to do their best work. I’m still trying to do my best work. Thank you, Rosie.

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i’m in yr park occupying yr access

maura @ 9:21 pm

I took the day off work to celebrate May Day this year by heading into the city to do an open access publishing teach-in with Jill and Alycia, my OA peeps from Brooklyn College. Alycia made a sign, Jill made handouts (paper and web), and I made cards with the URL for the web handout. It was rad: although the chilly rain, early hour, and a timeslot up against someone famous made for a small crowd, we had some great conversations about open access with folks who stopped by.

oateachinholding oateachincards

I hung out at the Free U until midafternoon when I had to leave to pick up Gus from school. There was a great vibe in the park, friendly and mellow, and it was fun to wander around and see the groups of people clustered together reading, discussing, and, in some cases, drawing. I ran into a coupla folks I know (though not my labor doula, who’d called me out of the blue the day before when she saw my name on the class list). I listened in on the session about the imagery of protest and Occupy by Occuprint, a group collecting and sharing the posters created by Occupiers, which was really cool.

At the beginning of the day there were only a handful of park rangers at the park, but as the day wore on and got sunnier + more crowded police started showing up. I felt a bit more tense as the day progressed, too — there were intermittent helicopters starting around 1-ish and the occasional paddywagon with sirens on driving by the park, though again, the park itself was pretty non-threatening. I had to leave before the marching started for which I was both glad and sad. Despite preparations like not bringing my nice water bottle, I really didn’t want to get arrested. Also, the older I get the less I’m into hanging out in large crowds of people, even if it’s for something I want to do (like see a band play, e.g.). On the other hand, the photos and videos I saw of the marches later made me wish I’d been able to stay: that good feeling that can accompany solidarity is lovely and was clearly evident.

Even though there are no firm rules, I did try to keep to the no work no housework no shopping no banking spirit of May Day. Definitely that = yes hanging out with your kid, which meant buying him a cookie at a (non-chain!) bakery near his school while we chatted about his day. It also meant yes laundry, because my inner stinky hippie forces me to hang most laundry dry which takes time, and we needed clean clothes. But otherwise I was pretty good at taking the day off, an accomplishment in itself, I think.

Photo on the left by Alycia and on the right by me.


on teaching and learning and worthwhile work

maura @ 10:49 pm

It’s been quiet around here, I know. But it seems like the semester’s finally settling in so I hope to be more present here, to write more in general, really.

Anyway, back in late August (which it feels like right now because it’s about 75 humid degrees), I wrote something about school and homework and struggling. But things got busy and I never finished or posted it. It’s weird to reread it now — seems practically like another lifetime ago. But it also seems a shame to waste the words, since writing, even the most self-indulgent bloggy kinds of writing, is hard work. So let’s see what I can make of it. And the bonus, since it’s a month later, is that I can share the end of the story (so far), too!

As summer draws to a close I’m thinking about working and teaching and starting the new school year. Gus’s new year is starting soon, too, which means that I’m racking my brain to think of strategies we can use to get through this year’s homework.

Last year featured some epic homework battles, occasional storms that besmirched an otherwise pretty excellent 4th grade experience. Sometimes the battles were over work that he finds difficult. Other times there were no battles – the homework was just challenging enough, interesting, and, dare I say, even enjoyable.

The biggest battles (and most frustrating, at least for me) were over homework that was a straightforward review of stuff he’d already mastered, esp. if that review came in the form of a worksheet. It wasn’t engaging for him, and that stuck in his craw, hard. We had the same conversation repeatedly, trying to convince him to just sit down and do the homework and get it over with quickly so he could move on to something more fun, rather than raging against it and drawing out the entire process. Some nights we were all miserable.

As much as I find all of the homework theatrics annoying (and angering), I feel for the kid, too. No disrespect at all to the teachers, who perform heroic feats in crowded classrooms (30 kids last year, 1 teacher) over long hours every day. But some of the homework *is* boring. It’s unengaging. It’s busy-work. And I can sympathize with Gus’s inability to see that as worthwhile work (while occasionally feeling like maybe there’s value in learning to just do it and move on).

This knowledge doesn’t bring us any closer to a solution for the upcoming year, though we still have a few weeks to discuss strategies as a family. However, it does make me think about the students I work with in the library. Too many of them seem to treat their research assignments the same way, as boring busy work. Even worse, some seem to have given up on wanting to take advantage of creativity and choice in their assignments. I am admittedly a spazzy nerd, and I hope that my (genuine!) enjoyment of the research process helps make the inevitable boring one-shot library instruction sessions a little bit less dull.

And now I’m not sure how to end this, at least not the library part. I’m not teaching our 3-credit course this semester, in which we have the whole semester to work with students to draw them out and engage them over lots of interesting topics in information and research and libraries. I’m too busy to miss it, but I do.

On the bright side, so far things are okay with homework and Gus. Some is situational — a bus switch has him home a bit earlier each day. But we are also trying to convince him to set an amount of time in which he’ll do his homework, then not hover too much over it. Middle school is coming, so in some ways this is probably our homework for the year. (Poor kid, don’t tell him that homework never ends.)

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nothing’s coming to mind

maura @ 10:11 pm

In the past 2 days I have ridden 4 subway lines (in order: G,* 7,** Q and 5) and traveled to 3 CUNY campuses for 2 great librariany programs (and 2 meetings). Yesterday was a program on information literacy assessment at LaGuardia Community College, and today was a program on critical pedagogy and library instruction at Brooklyn College. (And in between I had 2 meetings at the Graduate Center, where the wifi is not locked down + the cafeteria always has something tasty for lunch.)

* The G used to be Gus’s favorite train when he was wee, for obvious reasons. The logo is a pleasing spring green, so I like it too.

** Gus used to <3 the 7, too, when his favorite color was purple. I love it because it goes elevated in Queens and passes by an incredibly beautifully graffitied building.

It’s so strange the way my brain reacts to new knowledge sometimes. These programs were both incredibly engaging and thought-provoking, and usually afterward I’d be working things out in my head or scribbling (really typing) down some half-baked notes + ideas sparked by all of the good stuff I heard + thought about. But I think that the close proximity of two highly interesting + relevant (both work-relevant and research-interest-relevant) talks has overloaded my brain somewhat. The wheels are spinning a bit, but nothing coherent and no urge to write it down.

I think my brain is temporarily full. Maybe stuff will percolate out tomorrow or later. In the meantime, Sherlock Holmes will help empty it out a bit, right?


kind of a cop out

maura @ 6:15 pm

Yeah, you guessed it, this isn’t really a post. Kind of a finger in the eye after 6 days, huh? But I did write a post on my other blog about the website I made for the course I’m teaching this semester. It’s long enough that I can add a “W” to the calendar for today (= I wrote something somewhat substantial), and will just have to do for a Sunday evening.

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after all that whining

maura @ 5:49 pm

last weekend about time to write, I forgot to even mention that I posted on one of my other blogs. I actually ended up getting a fair amount of writing done last weekend, which was nice.


hey, have you been somewhere you’ve never ever been before

maura @ 7:01 pm

The semester started last Thursday, and our library’s course started too! I’ve had a busy month prepping for the course and worrying whether it would run, so it was great to finally get to the first class. All the nervousness that I thought I’d have suddenly vanished the morning of, too, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Ultimately I’m really looking forward to having an entire semester to work on big meaty information literacy* topics with the students, so I think that excitement drove the butterflies right out of my stomach.

* Shhh, we’re not calling it IL to the students, though — too jargony. The official course name is Research & Documentation for the Information Age.

I know what you’re thinking: what about the work? Isn’t it an enormous amount of work to teach a 3-credit course? Well, yes and no. It’s true that course prep expands to fill the time available, and when I was finalizing the syllabus this month I probably let it take more time than it should. But now that the semester’s begun I’m going to have to find ways to be more efficient with course prep, and I think that the syllabus and course outline is detailed enough that I should be able to prepare without deep-ending.** I’ll be responsible for fewer other instruction sessions and reference shifts than last semester, too.

** Overpreparation is an issue for me in lots of workstuff, so I should really use the course to help me practice figuring out when to stop.

It’s also true that I had a few moments this month when I desperately wished for one big giant textbook for the course. I’m using one text (Research Strategies, by William Badke) — it’s got a good overview of the research skills I want to cover, is written in an approachable style, and is under $20. But I also want to talk about things like privacy and access and evaluation and preservation and ethics and copyright and fair use and open access and documentation and non-text media and practical applications of all of this, which is bigger than this book, nice as it is. I’m still as anti-textbook and pro-open access as ever, but I do appreciate how much more time it takes to plan a class without one.

All in all, I’m totally stoked*** to teach this class.

*** A couple of weeks ago a CUNY colleague asked if I was from the West Coast, and referred to me as “mellow but organized.” Which cracked me right up.

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put the music on

maura @ 6:36 pm

You may remember my musing/grumping about classes I taught earlier in the week. I had a class this morning (my lone weekend class this semester), and I’m happy to report that it was an entirely different — and pleasant! — experience.

I’ve been trying to deconstruct it all day. The course instructor was there, though she had to miss the first half of the session; since the library doesn’t open that early she had to wait by the door for latecomers. The students were averagely engaged, some more than others, and there was a bit of chatting. I worked to ask more questions of them which I think helped, especially asking questions of the chatty ones. It was the first class of the day so the room wasn’t too hot yet.* I tried to pace + talk with my hands less (because I think that tires me out), though I’m not exceptionally well-rested today. And a big plus is that the students are working on a research assignment right now. I always ask students to suggest topics to search during library sessions, but today we actually found a couple of relevant books, articles, and websites for a few lucky ones.

* This is a serious bummer. Because the classroom was carved out of a windowless space not originally intended for 30 computers, it gets incredibly hot. We have a couple of fans and run them between classes, but we can’t run them too high during class or we’d have to yell over them. I sympathize with the students, really, I do. Even the most fascinating discussion is difficult to concentrate on when you’re in a hot room, and for most students even debating the pros + cons of Wikipedia (usually the high point of student interest in the session) doesn’t really qualify as fascinating.

So, what can I take away from this?

1. I need to try harder to schedule these sessions at students’ point of need: when they are beginning research for an assignment.

Scheduling is a huge bear for us. This semester we have 126 sections of English Comp I. We always have 4 instruction librarians and 1 classroom. Recently we’ve been trying to squeeze most classes in right after midterms, figuring that students won’t really be thinking about their final papers until then. But some sections don’t do a research paper and some faculty would prefer sessions earlier or later (we do accommodate those faculty who ask). Maybe next semester we will try asking for a few date suggestions from each prof and schedule them first come, first served. A colleague also suggested sticking with the same librarian/instructor pair from semester to semester, which could help us keep all of these diverse assignments in mind.

I also need to gently remind faculty that the sessions work best if students have an assignment. Since this is the only required library session in our students’ academic careers at the college, there’s a tendency to make it more orientation than instruction. I’d really like to move my classes more firmly into the instruction zone. Probably it’s time to revisit our learning objectives to make sure they don’t focus too much on orientation-type info. It’s also really hard to resist the temptation in these sessions to try and cover everything, because we’re only guaranteed to get them in the library this one time. But I know I should probably resist.

2. More thinking about a session that’s entirely made up of questions I ask of the students.

I already structure the first part of the class like this, in which I discuss searching the internet and how library and internet resources are different. We have classroom control software, so I could ask students to search and then display their results on the screen for all to see, which might be more efficient (and less scary) than asking students to come to the podium to demonstrate. I’m still not sure this will work with all classes — in my experience the students’ prior library knowledge is all over the place. But it will definitely be more interactive and (I hope) engaging for the students. I’ll need to really tightly tie the questions to our learning objectives to be sure that we have time to cover everything we need to in the session, and practice keeping a closer eye on the clock.

Closer, closer still! This is getting closer to a plan.

P.S. Sorry for so much library stuff here lately. I guess I can’t figure out where to put these less-formal blatherings. But I clearly want to write about these issues (I sat down to try to write an ACRL blog post but this is what I got instead), so I guess it’ll be here for now.

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so far, so far away

maura @ 9:06 pm

I had this whole post about open access publishing I was in the middle of writing for my other blag, but I broke my own writing rules and didn’t finish it this morning. I read the paper and my RSS feeds instead, which felt like a better way to start this Monday. We blew any sleep gained Saturday night by staying up too late reading/programming last night, then of course I woke up early and couldn’t go back to sleep, just for good measure. Tonight I am going to sleep at 9pm, seriously.

I had two classes right in a row in the middle of the day today, which meant that I ate lunch around 11:00am. Maybe it was my tiredness or maybe my full stomach that made me feel like the classes didn’t go particularly well. They weren’t awful, just that there seemed to be a higher percentage than usual of students either blatantly not paying attention and/or chatting amongst themselves. I know all of the things to do in these cases, e.g., stand near the chatterers, give them pointed looks, ask them questions about the material, and ask them to stop talking. And I even did some of them. But still, something about these classes was dissatisfying.

The humble one-shot library instruction session has been written about many times and in many venues, both formal and informal, and I’m not going to bore you with a repeat here. But on days like today I find myself wondering how I can make it better. What if there were a way to get the students more involved and to make the session less draining for me, too? Partly that’s my own fault — my adrenaline rush usually keeps me moving around during classes and I talk with my hands too much. But it’s also because of that dreaded feeling that I have to lecture for much of the session or else I won’t be able to cover all of the material. And lecturing is tiring.

I’ve been trying to hatch an alternative plan for these sessions in my head over the past week or so. I’m not sure if it’s gained enough mass yet to put down in writing — it still feels kind of ethereal. But the gist of it is: what if the entire class session consisted of me asking students questions? What if I asked them to demonstrate searching the library catalog and databases? I do ask questions throughout my classes, but maybe actually rewriting the library session as a series of questions would both help take the talking onus off of me and get the students more involved.

Now I just need to find the time to write those questions down. But not tonight.

les tags: ,

wherever you think you are

maura @ 10:30 pm

Right now we’re in the midst of our busy teaching time at work, when most of the English Comp classes (between 60-100 per semester!) come in for a session to learn how to do research in the library. I usually start off my sessions by talking about finding information on the internet. As a segue into discussing library resources I ask the students: “Is there anything, any kind or format of information, that is NOT available for free on the internet?” Usually most of them assert that everything is on the internet, and then I jump into finding books in the library catalog and scholarly journal articles in the subscription databases.

I was caught off guard by one student’s response last week, in an 8:30am class no less! “You can just download anything you need, even books.”

Woah. I do mention a bit about copyright during these sessions and we talk some about plagiarism, but I’ve never had a student bring up peer-to-peer file sharing before. There were a couple of articles about illegal textbook downloading on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s website last year, but the issue didn’t feel concrete to me until today. With the insanity of textbook prices and students’ limited budgets I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was.

And speaking of pirates, they’re apparently the subject of one of the most popular courses taught in the Anthropology department of my alma mater these days. Course content includes both pirates with peg-legs + parrots as well as the kinds of pirates that the RIAA has in their sights, and copyright issues too.