Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Writing as conversation and as process

For the past two days, my five sections of composition have been at the library for instruction. Each class has had 75 minutes with our instructional librarian, who has created a lecture and hands-on activites to get them involved in a research process that will eventually (by mid March), help them produce a draft of a researched essay.

The students have a tremendous amount of choice in their project topics, regardless of 111 or 112. They don't get to choose the product format, which is admittedly "academic" in an attempt to meet some of the learning outcomes of the courses. But at this stage of the game, they are just starting to figure out their topics and what they might do to learn about these interests. What's been most interesting to me has been to watch what happens when they are encouraged not to fixate on the target of the final paper that uses a minimum of 5 sources, but to explore the resources available to them to learn about their topic. 

Since the 112 students have wide open topics (I've used the Vlog Brothers concept of "world suck" as a frame for a problem-solution type essay, which I'll model after solutions journalism writing), we dialed back to concept mapping before we even let them into the databases. Some students were stumped by te idea of being able to write down any word they might associate with their topic. Yet, when I asked them questions like "where does that happen?" or "who does that affect?", they were able to ome up with more words. This makes me wonder what we can do to encourage better questions and makes me think that I might have to finally (in my copious spare time), go back and explore things like The Right Question Institute's work.

Kevin explained to both 111 and 112 students about how databases work and that computers are stupid. Most of them don't really understand how searches work, conceptually, and Kevin has a couple of really interesting anaolgies that help them see that computers don't really think about what a record means.

We also worked out a guided practice that forces them to look at a couple of different databases, record the process of searching, and pay attention to what the resources have to offer to help facilitate better results. Even still, many of them get so fixated on the search results that they don't see anything in the frame around the database. For example, one of the questions asked students to find the 7th source that comes up in their sarch of any database. One of the questions asks the students to write down the MLA citation for that source. Some databases, like Ebsco's, have a "Cite" link in the tools menu on the right have portion of the screen. But, since it wasn't in the center with the article, some students couldn't find this helpful resources. Another question asked students to identify the type of source the 7th record was. Some couldn't do that, despite the database's identifcation of the source as "academic journal" or "news article" in the list of results or from the title listed in the source field of the record.

All of this makes me question what we mean when we say that a student didn't pass a composition course. Is it that the student didn't have the information literacy skills to help them ask and answer questions? Is it that the student didn't have the academic literacy to write in a way that looked like it was "scholarly" or "school-like"? Is it that the student didn't have the motivation to engage in or sustain a research process? Is it that the student couldn't process the reading well enough to write about or in response to it? Or maybe is it that the student's material conditions (work, family life, transportation, etc.) came into conflict with the demands of the course?

I wonder how much of this gets unpacked when we talk about "failing students" or "failing schools"? 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Open enrollment and the urban college

Last week's reading for my graduate class was a selection from James Traub's 1994 book City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College. Traub's discussion of "the underclass" had been roundly criticized by Mary Soliday's 2002 The Politics of Remediation, which we read the week before. Soliday argues that the idea of "underclass," which she presents as a designation that indicates cultural barriers, is often substituted for "working class" to suggest that somehow the urban experience is responsible for lack of achievement. In Soliday's view, the underclass is a compelling image for "neoliberal intellectuals" because it allows failures in remediation to be cast as resistance to assimilation and highlight student need rather than the institutional structures that might need to be addressed. By giving agency to students in their own failures in City College, Traub implies that "college is affordable for everyone, but not attainable for cultural reasons" (Soliday 131).

So, I went into Traub expecting to see an indictment of open admissions, and I did see that. But, what I didn't expect was the ways that Traub echoed current educational debates 20 years later and relied on almost caricatured narratives of underprepared high school graduates and the frustrated, unprepared academics unfortunate enough to teach them.  Honestly, there were parts of the book describing Charles Frye's remedial class that could have been swiped from Welcome Back, Kotter, and strained belief.

On the other hand, Traub does get at the complexity of higher education, a complexity that troubles me.
City College lives at the intersection of these two principles. It cannot fully satisfy both. The only way to ensure that it flourishes as a fine professional and liberal arts institution, as it once did, is to recognize the limits of its social mission. City, and any other college that aspires to high academic standards, cannot be asked to educate large numbers of deeply disadvantaged students, as Ann Reynolds understands. It's not unreasonable to ask that students who complete high school without the academic credits detailed in the College Preparatory Initiative complete them elsewhere, presumably in a community college. Programs like SEEK, which permit students to enter without having satisfied admissions criteria, should stop functioning as entitlements and accept only those students who show special promise. And City cannot allow its commitment ot remedy disadvantage to lead to the sort of "social promotion" that has such a demoralizing impact on the high schools. City must accept students who have a decent chance of succeeding, ply them with help, and then insist that they satisfy not only high expectations by high standards (Traub 204-205).
As a former high school teacher and a new professor in a community college system, I've taught to see the students who are "without the academic credentials" they need to complete college. Four-year institutions raise admissions standards and reduce remediation. Those students who lack the academic credentials now, as in 1994, come to community colleges, and I think that's a perfectly logical and reasonable situation. But increasingly, those community colleges, too ,feel the same pressures that Traub describes here: educate all who come, but on a time-limit. Prepare them for college and careers, regardless of where they are when they start, within a certain timeframe. That's not entirely realistic.

Traub's recommendation to "ply them with help" seems to be the key. Northern Virginia Community College has 4 pathways programs designed to do just that for different populations within the college. In my limited experience here, the Pathways programs do seem to help students navigate the system. But they are likely not cheap to implement. If we're really determined to educate all, then these programs need to be the norm and not the exception. They need to carry students who need additional support into the community college system and beyond.

Do we have the societal commitment to do that?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Politics of Remediation and Free Community College

As part of his "State of the Union" address, President Obama proposed a program that would grant students the equivalent of  two years of full-time tuition at community colleges. Obama pointed to a Tennessee program as a model for this national initiative, In a time where there's tremendous focus on the growing cost of college, this grand idea has drawn significant positive attention, and some equally vehement backlash.  The debate over the "America's Promise" plan for free community college for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and have family adjusted gross incomes of less than $200,000 reveals some of the stratification and politics of access and representation that Mary Soliday explored in her 2002 The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education.

Part of the issue that some have is that Obama has chosen not to expand the Pell Grant, which can be used for tuition at 4-year colleges as well as community colleges. Many of those advocating expansion of the Pell instead of the President's plan have an interest in maintaining enrollment in 4-year universities, which have felt the pinch of budget cuts and the backlash against rising tuition rates caused by the withdrawal of government support for higher education. These articles tend to highlight research (or sometimes "research") that proves that 4-year colleges have better outcomes:
Do I think that community colleges are the answer? I'm not sure. Pell Grants should be expanded, but there are many families that identify as "middle class" that the Pell Grants don't help. Those families could benefit from this plan. But both expanding the Pell and enacting America's Promise require a level of societal commitment to education and to funding that education through government programs that I don't think we have the will to do, despite all of our claims about the value of an education.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Public and hidden transcripts in the NFL

In my reading for this semester's class, I've come across a concept that seems to be sticking in my head. Richard E. Miller's Writing at the End of the World uses the ideas of public transcripts and hidden transcripts from James Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance. To be fair to Scott, Miller's piece is the first place that I've encountered Scott's work. Miller doesn't fully buy Scott's arguments about how performance of these two forces construe social action, but I can see some merit in them as a way to look at what might seem to be shocking outbursts.

Let me share a bit about the two terms, at least as I understand them from Miller's explanation. The public transcript is what "'serves as a shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate'" (Scott qtd. in Miller 127). So, the public transcript is the one that gets valued and validated. It's the story that maintains the status quo. On the other hand, "the hidden transcript is, by contrast, a kind of discourse 'that takes place "offstage," beyond direct observation of the powerholders" (Scott qtd in Miller 128).

Thus, the hidden transcript provides an alternative view of what could be, whether that view is to parody the public transcript or a vision of a different world that is shared by those who are not in power. The subordinates don't really have the access to power to affect change, and often seem to comply with the public transcript because they "are attempting to avoid any 'explicit display of insubordination'...when in fact they have neither embraced this ideology nor resigned themselves to the fate this ideology has in store for them" (Scott, qtd in Miller 133, emphasis in Scott's original work).  

When the hidden transcript does get expressed publicly, it can be quite shocking. But, as Miller notes, "it is important to recognize that the shock arises not so much because the public revelation of the hidden transcript discloses unknown information, but rather because, in the act itself, the revelation threatens to 'tear the public face of the hegemony'" (Scott qtd. in Miller 133). This last piece resonated with me because as I was reading and discussing Miller's work, I kept hearing coverage of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's refusal to talk to the press during the mandatory media day event.

While an NFL player's refusal to answer the predictable questions that are supposed to produce the predictable responses about team work, team as family, and "giving 110%" doesn't rise to the severity or extreme situations that Scott purportedly describes in his book, the media reaction to the NFL star's almost 5-minute repetition of "I'm here so I won't get fined" was the type of shock Scott describes when hidden transcripts are made public.  The mixed reaction of his fellow players and fans seems to confirm that there are hidden transcripts at work here. 

Certainly, Lynch hasn't endeared himself to the media and repeatedly has brought the type of attention to the NFL that the league does not want, through over the top unsportsmanlike celebrations and three separate arrests during his NFL career. It would be tempting to write this off as just another egotistical display of a selfishly ungrateful superstar. But that's a bit simplistic to me, especially in light of some of the profiles of Lynch that portray him as a guy who loves to play, but doesn't love the limelight and fears both disappointing and being disappointed by others

Yes, being available to the media is part of the job, but it's probably not one that many players love. And Lynch's refusal to pretend that it is more than a job requirement threatens our narratives about what we expect from successful athletes.

We want to believe in our teams. We pay for our tickets and our jerseys. We buy coffee mugs and baby onesies to show our allegiance. Even if our team doesn't make the big game, we tune in, at least for the commercials. And we expect the two-week-long show to include the voices of the players. But how did we come to conflate athletic ability and being a good communicator?

We want to think that successful athletes owe something to us for their success, and should demonstrate their gratitude by being nice to us and being role models for good conduct. But that also ignores the pressure that constant scrutiny must place on an individual.

I suspect that why Lynch's refusal to play along with the media hype shocks people because it reminds us that not all of the stories we tell ourselves, and the media perpetuates, are true. Not all football players want the constant celebrity and attention that they get from being at the top of their game. Not all kids who make it out of rough circumstances are willing and able to be role models, even if their rise confirms what we want to believe about hard work. And guys who play professional sports don't actually have meaningful relationships with the fans or with the media who cover them.

So, is Lynch selfish? Is he an ass? Maybe. But maybe we're also a bit complicit because we're looking for stories that confirm the public transcript that plays out every January.

Work Cited
Miller, Richard E. Writing at the End of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh, 2005. Print.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Swarm

I mentioned before that the hive we call Big Brown started out as a captured swarm. In this post, I'll share how we caught that swarm.

A very nice lady who lives about 10 miles away called our beekeeping association on April 29, 2012. She had a swarm that about 20-30 feet up in the air and hoped someone could remove it. Her neighbor used to keep bees, but had lost his hive. He had left the equipment in his yard, and Nancy had noticed that a new hive had taken up residence that spring. Then she saw the hive swarm in the morning of April 29, and the cloud of bees perched in her tree. She knew that local beekeepers caught swarms, so she called our club.

The club put out a text message to the swarm call list, and I responded. Eric and I drove to her house in the late afternoon with our bee gear, a cat litter bucket to shake the bees into, and closed box to transport the swarm back home.

Once we got there, we realized the swarm was too far up for us to just shake into a bucket. It took a little time to come up with a plan. After a trip to Home Depot to buy another bucket, a paint roller (which gave us a large hook), and a telescoping handle to put the roller onto. It was quite the McGivver operation, but it worked!

Nancy took pictures of the effort. It was quite a challenge to get the swarm, but we managed to capture most of it and put it into the box. We left the box there overnight to let the rest of the swarm find their way inside, and the next day, we taped up the whole works, drove it home, and installed the hive into the brown boxes where they have lived ever since.

Eric is setting up the ladder as I get the bucket and pole together.
This gives some perspective on how high the swarm WAS.

Eric is standing near the top of that large ladder, and using a tree saw to cut the branch beneath the swarm.
I'm on the ground, moving the bucket underneath to catch the swarm as it falls.

The majority of the swarm landed right in the bucket! You can see it as a dark shadow.
We lowered the bucket and temporarily put a lid over it.
Then we used the cat litter bucket to get the rest of the swarm as bees returned to the cut branch. 

After we caught the swarm, we put shook the buckets into this swarm trap and shut it the top. The boxes had frames with drawn combs and some with foundation.
We hoped this would convince the swarm to stay put until we could move them. 

We weren't able to shake all of the bees into the box,
so we put the buckets near it, pointing toward the opening at the bottom.

We noticed the box had a little extra room that the bees were using as a second entrance.
But the bees there were also fanning, which is the bee signal for "come here!"
Bees who had been out scouting for new hive space were coming back and were joining the others.

We left all of the equipment overnight at Nancy's. When we came back the next evening, it was clear the bees had stayed put.  We taped up the box, covering the entrance and the "secondary" entrance at the top, loaded the whole works into the car, and drove it home.
These bees have really thrived. They are hardy and have now survived two winters with us. Additionally, they boom in population and really pull in quite a bit of nectar. Last spring, they were so prolific, we had to split the hive once to keep it from swarming, which resulted in Little Brown. I suspect that we will have to split it again this year.

The moral of this post is: If you ever see a ball of bees hanging out in a tree or a bush, especially in the spring to early summer, don't try to kill it! It's probably a swarm looking for a new home, and it will be gone within 24 hours. If you want to help it along, call your local beekeepers and someone (like us) will come out to get it and take it to a lovely new hive box.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Q is for Queen Bee

Two queen cells on the face of a comb.
Cord Campbell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Last weekend, Eric and I spent about 2 hours inspecting our hives on the first warm day where we had the time to do so. We knew three hives had survived the winter, but we wanted to make sure that each had enough room and that the queens were alive and laying eggs.

When we tore down the dead green hive, it was quite clear that the hive had lost its queen--the bees had made many queen cells, which are distinctive. I didn't get any pictures of the cells we found, but this photo from Gord Campbell shows how the cells hang from the comb to accommodate the queen as she develops--she's much larger than worker or drone bees.  The green hive had dozens of these cells.

Big Brown as a swarm, in a photo
sent to us by Nancy.
It was in her backyard.
In a working hive, sometimes it's hard to spot the queen. She's one bee out of thousands, and most queens don't like to be disturbed. It's usually enough proof for us to find eggs because eggs hatch in 3 days or less. But, we really wanted to find each queen and see with our own eyes that she was alive and well.

We started with the "big brown" hive, which is farthest from the house. The brown hive actually started out as a feral swarm we caught in 2012 (that's going to be my S post in a couple of days!), and it has been a prolific hive. It tends to boom early in the spring and wants to reproduce. In fact, we saw that happening last spring, and took out the queen cells, which resulted in Little Brown, our 2nd hive.

When we opened up Big Brown, we saw they had already started to fill the top box with nectar, proving again that they are quite the active starters. We had to go down to the 2nd box from the bottom before we found the queen. Unlike most queens, she didn't try to run and hide. She just
kept laying eggs and working on the frame, completely unperturbed that she was being held 4 feet off the ground so the paparazzi could take her picture. Once we found her, we closed up the hive, and moved to Little Brown, next door

The queen is actually the bee with the dark thorax, which looks like a big black dot in the lower third of the picture. She's much larger than the other bees, but you wouldn't know that from this picture because she has her abdomen in a cell, and is laying an egg. If you look in the right, center, you'll see a bee that looks like it is ALL eyes. That's a drone, the only male in the hive. He's larger than the workers, but he doesn't sting. 
Before we got into Little Brown, I went in to try to find a fresh camera battery. Of course, I have no idea where the charger is, so I decided to limp the camera along (I succeeded). When I came out, Eric was talking to a guy who had stopped when he saw Eric in his bee jacket. Rolando wants to keep bees and had lots of questions. Since we have a couple of extra jackets, we invited him to put one on and watch the rest of the inspections. I might be the professional teacher in the family, but Eric certainly loves to teach people about bees!

Little Brown wasn't as quick to start storing nectar as her mother hive, but she was working. We ended up finding the queen in about the same location as we had in Big Brown. Little Brown's queen wasn't as unflappable; she stopped laying, but didn't immediately head for cover. She let me take some pictures of her, and then we closed up that hive, too.
Little Brown's queen walked around and let me capture her next to her daughters. There's most of a drone in the lower right, which gives a pretty good idea of the relative sizes of queen, worker, and drone.
The white hive, which started as a nucleus hive we purchased from Pat Haskell of the Bee Keepers of Northern Virginia club, has been with us since 2012, too. She and her husband Jim raise bees out in Luray, at their mountain house, and teach beekeeping classes. The green hive, which didn't make it through the winter, was also a nuc hive we bought at the same time. If you had asked me which I thought wouldn't make it, I would have said the white hive. But they are still plugging along.

The hive hadn't really filled much of the 4th box we had added a week earlier, but they were clearly about to have a population boom. We found lots of capped brood inside in the 3rd box. The queen was located down in box two, and ran around a bit. These have always been a "runny" hive--they don't like to sit still when we inspect them. I still managed to catch her for a couple of quick pictures before we closed up the last hive.
The White Hive queen has different coloration than the others. I love how varied these bees are.

We're going to watch Big Brown pretty closely, and will probably add another box to give them room to store more nectar. Now that the weather has warmed up, all three hives are making the most of the emerging flowers. I caught them working the purple deadnettle and dandelions this week. I hope this bodes well for the honey harvest this year.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for mornings...and more

This is my spring break week. But, as I'm a graduate student in addition to a teacher, I have been working. So, I've kept to some of my routines. One of those is early mornings. Sure, I take naps (N is tomorrow, and I could wax on and on about naps), but I'm trying to keep to roughly the same morning schedule.  As I'm married to someone who isn't a teacher, I have extra incentive.

My plan was to get a shower after Eric left for work around 6 a.m., and go to the local Starbucks for coffee and writing time. I have a draft of a paper due tomorrow, and I've spent the last two days reading, thinking, and researching. Once Eric left around 6, I figured I could get myself together and be productive by 6:30 or 6:45.

My morning plan did not
include a yogurt container
in the cup holder...
That's not quite what happened. Instead of sitting at the local Starbucks, I found myself driving this yogurt container to a Civil War battlefield near my house at around 6:45.

This morning, Eric got up around 5, and I stayed in bed with the cats while he showered. Abi likes to spend a little time letting me know he's happy to be alive by yelling and purring at me, and I like to indulge us both before I get up to feed him. Once he was fed, I got some things together for Eric's lunch, and saw him off. So far, all was going according to plan, and I went upstairs to get a shower.

When I went into the bathroom, I noticed Penny lurking near the door of the office and extra bedroom. Our split-level house is pretty compact upstairs; almost everything is line-of-sight up there. Abi hadn't finished his food, which we keep in the office behind a baby gate that Penny doesn't seem to know how to jump. She will sometimes sit in front of it, so I didn't think much of it, until she started flipping out and diving around. To my surprise, when she calmed down and turned around, I realize what she was playing with had been the live mouse she had in her mouth.

Standing naked in my bathroom and watching my 13 year old cat walk by carrying the live mouse she just caught was not in plans. Suddenly, I went from calm, competent teacher/graduate student/adult to squealing child. I honestly didn't know what to do. All I knew was that if Penny dropped that mouse in the kitchen, it would go under the stove and we'd lose it.

That's happened before--before Penny came to live with us, Abi once caught a mousy "toy" and brought it upstairs to play. We had to set a live trap to capture that very clever mouse, and I learned then that dumping a mouse within running distance of the house would result in a replay of the action a couple of days later.

Penny, who like Abi has never known hunger or life as a stray, clearly has the hunting instinct, but not the killing instinct. She wasn't interested in this mouse as a meal. This mouse was just the coolest, most interactive toy she ever discovered. She strolled right past me, took her new toy downstairs to an open space in the living room, and put it down. The mouse, sensing its chance, took off, and the chase was on.

While I tried to figure out what to do, she caught it and let it go a couple of times. It wasn't until it ran behind a nightstand near the door that I thought to call Eric and tell him what was going on. Penny had the mouse cornered there, and I had a moment to think. Eric suggested that if I wanted to get the mouse out of the house, I'd have to catch it and release it somewhere.

So, I helped Penny by moving the nightstand, and she handily caught the mouse, brought it back to the open space in the living room, and dropped it again. This time, it went under a bookshelf, which I had to move, and Penny retrieved her mouse as the other cats watched the show.

The teeny mouse waits,
safe in its container,
just before I let it out in a
National Park Service field.
When she brought the mouse into the kitchen, I got a yogurt container and lid. She dropped the mouse on the kitchen floor between her and Abi, who sniffed at it. Penny reacquired it to move it back to the center of the floor, and I leaned over it and encouraged the terrified rodent into the container and snapped it shut. Using a kitchen knife, I cut a couple of holes into the lid while Penny scoured the kitchen floor, looking for her lost mouse. She's a terrific mouser, but not a very deep thinker--the container-mouse connection eluded her.

I did get that shower, and the mouse container stayed safe from the cats in the bathroom sink and on top of the dresser as I got ready to leave.

The mouse cautiously investigates.
I drove the mouse to the nearby battlefield, got out of the car, and took a couple of photos as I sent it on its way. It was understandably a little hesitant to come out of the container at first, but quickly bounded through the rain, into the tall grass, and to its fate.

As I turned to get back into the car, I saw an NPS truck had pulled into the lot and was watching me. I waved, got into my car, and drove off to get breakfast at Cracker Barrel before going back home.

I never did get to Starbucks until the time I was supposed to meet up with a friend to peer review. Some mornings require new plans.