Adios Tegrity. Hello Jing!

Tegrity Troubles

After struggling with Tegrity, I’ve decided to switch to Jing for screen capture. Tegrity has had way too many problems.  I’ve had lots of students complain about it.  I’ve switched to using a laptop exclusively and spent two hours yesterday trying to install Tegrity on my laptop (Windows XP)  and record a ten-minute talk for my students. Here are the problems I encountered:

  • The Tegrity recorder would not install unless I used Internet Explorer (you can’t just go to Tegrity’s web site and download the recorder; you have to start a recording online)
  • The installation required two restarts
  • I had to start the recording several times to get around IE’s security settings
  • When recording using IE, I could not switch between PowerPoint and a PDF that I wanted to show my students
  • In order to record and switch screens I had to use FireFox
  • I could not log in using the record function from the Tegrity icon in the system tray

After all those hurdles, I finally recorded my ten-minute video.  I trimmed the first ten seconds of dead air from the front of the video using the Edit screen.  After I went back to the video, I found that ten seconds of video had been removed, but twelve seconds of audio had been removed, making the entire audio track out of sync.

Maybe that was just a server hiccup, but after a few choice words, I decided then an there to ditch Tegrity entirely and find something else.

Jing!

Jing is easy! After you download the client and set up an account,  it lives in a glowing semicircle at the top of the screen, and you just click on it and record a quick video with narration. I’ll do it now.

I recorded a video of me typing this sentence. It took two seconds to start the recording, and as soon as I stop it, it’s available on the screencast.com server in under a minute and you can paste in a link, like this:

http://screencast.com/t/qs9fahg8ZtJ

Jing is nowhere near as robust as Tegrity, but for recording quick videos, which is what I want for my online courses, it is perfect.  I downloaded the software, learned how to use it, and posted my first screencasts in under thirty minutes.

The free version sticks a Jing banner at the beginning and does not record directly from the webcam.  The pro version is only $14.95 a year and adds some features.  You can upload directly to YouTube and record video from the web cam.

Both versions have some limitations.  You can only record up to 5 minutes at a time.  For longer videos, you have to go with Camtasia Studio, which is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of price and features.  Also, with both versions you get a free screencast.com account, but you are limited to 2GB of storage and 2GB of monthly bandwidth.

With the free version though, you can save the videos as .swf files to your computer.  I tried uploading that to YouTube, but it didn’t work.  I did load it into our LMS, and the videos play just fine.  And it is so easy,  you can record a longer video in parts and post the parts.  So, for recording short screencast videos quickly, I think Jing is about perfect!

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Using Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro for One-on-One Conferences

For about two years now, I’ve been touting the value of the grading conference in teaching writing to anyone who will listen. I’ve found that meeting students one-on-one to grade their work, in addition to the more traditional “draft” conferences has had enormous positive effects on my students’ work and my own work as well. I started the practice in my face-to-face classes in order to stop procrastinating on grading papers, and I found as an unexpected outcome that the quality of the interaction is greatly improved. I’ll be happy to discuss it at length if you ask . . .

Anyway, about a year ago I decided to find a way to do the same technique with online courses. I always felt if I could just sit down with students and talk that the results would be so much better. I began using Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro in order to do that, with wonderful results.

Connect Pro is a web conferencing software. If you’ve ever attended a webinar (love those neologisms) you know what kind of software I am talking about. Conferencing software allows for lots of interaction: two-way audio, chat, sharing documents, live polls, etc. What makes Connect Pro work well in this case is the ability for the presenter to share his or her computer screen.

Here’s how it works in my course:

A few days before conferences are scheduled to begin, I post a sign-up sheet on FerrisConnect (I use the Group Manager and create one-person groups with times listed on a sign up sheet). Prior to the meeting, I’ve collected their work via the Assignments tool, and have the file open and ready to go.

At their alloted time, a student follows a web link to the meeting space and then calls me on the phone. There’s no software to download or accounts for them to set up. Once we get the meeting going, I share my screen and we read through the document together. I use Track Changes and Comments to record notes from our discussion (whether it is a draft session or a grading session), and when we’re done, I convert save the file as a PDF and post it back on FerrisConnect for them.

There are many advantages I found to conducting online conferences. First, they are efficient. Because we have a conversation, I can reduce a lot of the bypassing that happens in online courses. I can explain an issue and they can ask questions. At least I know that they’ve heard me.

Second, the experience is personal. Many students really enjoy these sessions, and I do too. I get to know them much better, and they get to know me. I use a webcam from my end, so they know my face and can see non-verbal cues as well. My “disappearing” rate among online students is lower with this personal connection, and we have better working relationships.

Third, the writing is better. Students have a better understanding of my feedback when I add the live conversation to the typed notes. I see fewer instances of students repeating the same kinds of flaws in their work, in part due to the conferences forcing me to stay on schedule with my feedback!

I’ve developed some specific practices to help things along. For example, I’ve learned to be flexible with time. I do conferences on afternoons, evenings, and weekend. I balked at doing weekend conferences at first, but then I remembered I would be sitting around Saturdays staring at a stack of (virtual) papers anyway. I also give students opportunities to reschedule if they need to, in order to meet as many of them as possible.

I schedule the conferences on the half hour. It doesn’t take half an hour to do a conference, but there needs to be that leeway for technology hiccups and students arriving late and early.

The conference room has a virtual door, and I use it. I lock the door when a student comes in, because sometimes the next student pops in early or at the wrong time.

I have students call me directly, rather than the built-in voice conference. With one student that’s easier. If I were meeting a group, I would use the built-in audio. I set up a Skype phone number so I could use a headset and the same number at home or at work.

I tell students to maximize their screen and ask them often “Do you see that?” when I’m highlighting something. There is a small time lag with AdobeConnect, and I have to be careful not to go too fast.

Overall, the time invested in grading this way is worth the return for me. Despite my years of trying, I am still very slow at grading papers on my own. This method is not for everyone; a lot of hours are eaten up doing these conferences. I do them seven or eight times a semester with each student.

In order to get started with Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, you can contact the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. I also recorded a demonstration of the software at work. You can find that here: http://tinyurl.com/jontaylorconf

Learning with BlackBoard Learn 9.1

This semester, I am teaching my face-to-face LITR 286 course with the help of BlackBoard Learn 9.1 (henceforth “BB”), as part of a pilot testing group. Our current Learning Management System will eventually be phased out by BlackBoard, and this system is one possibility for replacing it.

The best compliment I can give BB is that it has become transparent in my classes. In other words, it has become just another of our class tools that my students and I use to communicate and learn. The learning curve for the students seemed the same for using FerrisConnect. I have used BB for the same purposes I used FerrisConnect last semester, with the same results.

These sections of LITR 286 are face-to-face, so I am using BB in a web-assisted teaching mode. I use the site for a number of purposes:

1. A repository for course materials
2. A collection point for team assignments
3. A grade book
4. A conduit for email

Probably the most advanced use I am making of BB so far is for group assignments. I have students arranged into groups of four to five students, and we meet once a week in lab where they complete a team assignment, such as an analysis of a poem. BB has a groups tool, similar to FerrisConnect, so I can create an assignment for a group. One person from the group submits the assignment, and the grade flows back to all the group members when I grade the work. The only problem we’ve had is if a student submits a filename with a number sign in it, I can’t download it; however, BlackBoard is working on the issue.

In the second half of the semester, the teams will work together to produce a longer assignment over several weeks, and I look forward to using the Wiki tool. The Wiki will allow them to collaborate online on a single document and it will allow me to track who contributed what to the document.

I have found the gradebook quite easy to use. It is much faster than FerrisConnect in that you can edit directly inside a cell, much like a spreadsheet, rather than waiting for another window to open and close. There are lots of options for filtering your gradebook view as well to quickly look at all assignments on one screen, for example. Another option is to show just one student’s record across the screen. I’ve found this helpful during conferences when I want to go over grades with a student.

I’ve also used the email tool for communicating to students. The default setting for email is to send email out from BB to the students’ Ferris email addresses (although it still has internal messaging as an option). When they reply to the message it goes to my Lotus email, rather than back to BB. I’ve found this tool a quick way to communicate with students; many students have mentioned that they saw an important announcement on their email accounts when they missed class.

Another positive result was an improptu online peer review session during our snow day earlier in the semester. When I found out the bad weather was coming, I told them on that Monday that we would do peer review online instead of in the lab and they could use lab time if they wanted help with this. I emailed them the instructions later that day. When Ferris closed on our lab day, it turned out we had to do it online, and it worked with few problems (other my putting one student in the wrong group).

There are a number of key differences in the BB system. For example, the course menus are entirely customizable. You can choose to put tools in the course menus, much like on FerrisConnect, but you can put folders there or links to content or whatever you like. It does require careful planning, though. Otherwise, an instructor might end up with a huge list that would be hard to navigate going down the left side of the page.

Another nice feature is to be able to add bits of text or HTML to a page along with links to course items. It makes the individual pages much more customizable. Probably the biggest improvement over FerrisConnect is the fact that the HTML Creator actually works. You can quickly create text online using a word-processor-like interface.

Overall the site runs much faster than FerrisConnect. However, we are using a site hosted by the company, rather than a Ferris-hosted site, with a limited group of students and instructors. As I understand it, Ferris is exploring whether company hosting or Ferris hosting is the best option.

All is not perfect, however, and some people in the pilot have had some hiccups. Some of those issues have to do with learning all the options; because it is robust, there are a lot of settings to deal with sometimes. The biggest drawback right now for me is there is no Grading Forms tool in BB. The company is developing it, however, and plans to have it integrated later this year. Bea Griffith-Cooper from FCTL has been collecting any issues we’ve encountered into a wiki to be part of our pilot group’s overall evaluation.

So far, BB has met my needs as an instructor for a web-assisted course and I see it working well for my online sections as well.

BlackBoard Training Day

So yesterday was our all-day training session on BlackBoard 9.1 for those of us who are piloting classes in the system for this semester.  I’ve had a couple questions via Facebook, so I’ll answer them here.

What is the roll-out schedule for BlackBoard 9.1?

The schedule, as far as I know, has not been set yet.  In fact, the decision to switch to BB 9.1 hasn’t been made yet.  We originally were going to pilot two or three systems but the FerrisConnect Advisory Board and Academic Affairs decided to pilot BB first, since it exists with our current software provider.  My feeling is if it’s not a disaster, we’ll probably switch.  Information about the decision-making process is here:

http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/academics/center/ferrisconnect/fab/FC2-learningMgmtSystem.html

Will we have to start over with this new software like we did with the switch from WebCT to FerrisConnect?

There are several issues wrapped up in this question.  First, FerrisConnect was our name for the next WebCT product.  We had WebCT Campus Edition, and then we switched to WebCT Vista, because Campus Edition was going away.  In the middle of this transition, BlackBoard bought WebCT and stuck its name everywhere, so WebCT Vista suddenly became BlackBoard Vista (and Microsoft Vista came out at the same time.  Oy!) We called it FerrisConnect.

So what we know now as FerrisConnect is the last remnant of WebCT, which is also going away.  What we’re moving to is what used to be the BlackBoard line.  There are important differences between the two (see a comparison at the link above) but also a lot of very familiar things.

Another issue is that we did not have to “start over” with FerrisConnect.  It was a newer and different system (though not as different as we initially thought: all that stuff about courses vs. sections and templates proved to be mostly irrelevant), but we were able to migrate a lot of courses and content.

With BB 9.1, some people in the pilot had their courses migrated from FerrisConnect, but I chose not to.  I like to rebuild courses every semester to make them fresh and make sure no old stuff gets moved without me reviewing it.  So I do know that courses were migrated, and I did not hear about a lot of problems at the training.

What is your impression after the training?

It is a lot more efficient and runs more quickly, but we are running on BlackBoard’s server right now and are not integrated with our system (Mary Holmes is managing student accounts manually).  There are a lot of little things that are better, like moving things by drag and drop rather than with menus.  I’ve started building my course, so here’s an old vs. new screenshot:

Keep in mind that the “new” layout is much more flexible: you can put whatever you want in the menus, change the course entry page, easily mix html and content links on the pages, etc.   In fact, the training emphasized up front that instructors have to make decisions about how to organize courses using the menus:  you could organize it by tool, the way FerrisConnect is, or by unit (one folder per week), or by content, or some mixture.  (This also opens the door for disorganization, so it’s something to be emphasized f0r training).  I think this flexibility is a great asset, though.

Also something which is much better is the GradeBook (called Grade Center in BB 9.1).  It is very easy to navigate and contains lots of tools for looking selectively at data (categories, filters, smart views).

One thing that is nearly impossible to do in FerrisConnect is weighted averages.  It is very easy to do that in BB 9.1.  Say, for example, you had a class with quizzes, tests, and assignments, and you wanted to make quizzes worth 20%, assignments worth 30%, and tests worth 50%.  All you do is assign each column a category tell it how to weight each category and then there is a tool that adds all that up for you and figures out the math.  And, if you added more quizzes in partway through the term, as long as you assigned them to the quizzes category, the system readjusts automatically.

There are lots of little things in the Grade Center that are neat too.  You can quickly change one cell, without waiting for three different screens to load.  You can quickly show one row on the screen and hide the rest, so if you were working with a student, you could show only that student’s grade on the screen.

Another good thing is that the’re no prohibition on using the back button in the browser.

A couple of negative things came up.  First, there are not popup announcements in BB 9.1–but it does have a sophisticated “alert” system.  Also, as it stands, there is no mechanism built in to enforce time limits on tests (there is a time limit, apparently, but once it counts down to zero, nothing happens; it does notify the instructor that the student went over the time limit, but doesn’t show what the student did after the time limit).  We found out that Princeton developed a “building block” that we can install to fix this problem.  As I mentioned before, Grading Forms are not implemented, but are in the works for this summer.

Also, there is no centralized Assignments page, which seemed odd at first, but it turns out it is just different: you manage assignments in the Grade Center instead, and it uses the Alerts system to notify students.

All in all I am pretty excited about trying out this system—but I’m in “new toy” phase right now.

Bb Learn 9.1 First Impressions

I’m taking part in the BlackBoard Learn 9.1 pilot in Spring semester 2011 at Ferris.  This is the system we are considering upgrading to, what some people are calling FerrisConnect 2.  The information about this pilot is posted by the FerrisConnect Advisory Board here:

http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/academics/center/ferrisconnect/fab/FC2-learningMgmtSystem.html

Basically, the idea is that we’re trying Bb Learn 9.1 first and if there are no major troubles, we will begin transitioning soon.  Our current product will be no longer supported after 2013.

My goal with these posts will be to record my impressions during the pilot to share with the campus community.  Being a writing teacher I have my own biases about what a course management system needs to do, so bear in mind these are just one person’s impression.  I also use Ubuntu Linux as my operating system on my personal computer, so compatibility is a concern for me, although I use WindowsXP on my office machine.  I’ll try not to post anything that’s factually incorrect, but will post corrections if I do.

First Impressions

So far, I’ve only spent a couple of hours with the new system in training mode on BlackBoard’s own servers.  We’re in sandbox mode now, just playing, so nothing is integrated yet with our system.  I’ve watched the first training video and played around with some things.  A quick screen shot:

Here are some things I am excited about:

First, there is no more separate Build and Teach tabs, just a simple Edit Mode on/off switch in the top right.  I don’t know yet how this affects grading or anything, but the Off setting shows the student view.

Second, the course menu is highly flexible.  Instead of just the tools living in the course menu as in FerrisConnect, you can add the equivalent of FerrisConnect content links there.  You’re not bound to the home page as the point of entry into the course.

I am also really excited about the new Wiki tool.  I do collaborative writing projects in the course I’m going to pilot next semester (Literature 286: Justice in Literature), and you can put students into groups and track their individual contributions to the group Wiki.

Another thing I really like is the Visual Editor mode.  It is similar to the HTML Creator in FerrisConnect in that it has word processor-style buttons for editing text, but it is different from FerrisConnect in that it actually works. (It never seems to finish loading on the machines I use).  You can easily incorporate files and images into pages online and even YouTube videos via a “mashups” button.

Overall, so far everything seems pretty intuitive to me.  There are key differences in the interface between this and FerrisConnect.  I usually adapt to changes quickly, though (except I still have trouble finding things in Word 2007), and I’ve had fun playing with the new system.

Here are some things I am less excited about:

One key loss in this new system is Grading Forms.  I knew this going in (it’s mentioned as “Rubrics” on page 4 of this report as a loss), but it is a big loss for me personally.  I teach writing courses, some of them completely online, and I use Grading Forms to grade papers and discussion participation.  I don’t know yet if there is some sort of workaround. (Note: according to Mary Holmes, this feature will be added to Bb 9.1 next summer!)

The look of the courses seems to be a standardized corporate gray color.  So far, I’ve found that I can only customize the color of the course menu, which I have.  That may not be all bad; I’ve seen lots of offending color combinations in courses (contrast, people!) and the new course panes use a white background which I’m fond of (as you can tell by my blog). I imported my LITR 286 banner and it kind of clashes with the existing colors.  This could be an administrative option to allow or disallow customization, so I’m not 100% sure of this as an issue yet.

Wrapping up . . .

I’m excited to play with this new toy so far.  I’ll post impressions periodically and cross-link the new posts to Facebook. We’re having training sessions and development sessions over break, so I will post frequently prior to the new semester.  Feel free to email me any questions.

North

Out the door and down
the hill. Past the elementary

school and across the soccer
fields. The trailhead, past

where deer graze, next
to where the river slides fast

and quiet. The warning signs
and then the tree mural,

the hidden entrance to the park,
through the park to the first

bridge, past the middle school
(do not speak to anyone)

to the second bridge
across the road, next to

a parking lot, next to
the river again. Behind houses

where children stare at
you, behind the Farm & Garden.

Past the last houses and
the old gas fields and

you’ve made it to the open.
When you wish to be gone

this is the way you go.
Your legs tell you when it’s

far enough to make it back
unless you are too far gone

to listen. In that case,
listen to the jays

and crows and fear
their warnings instead.


This poem originally appeared in The Michigan Poet.

Weakness for/from Poetry

After three weeks of banging words out for NaNoWriMo and stalling out way short of 50,000 words (with a respectable 24,000 words), and after a Thanksgiving holiday filled with headaches, low pressure systems, and an attempt to reduce my caffeine intake (all three related), instead of throwing myself back at the fiction grindstone, I instead finished the edits on my poetry collection and sent it to a book contest.  I should write “finished”; it’s never done.

When I was drafting for the novel, it felt good to have that word flow going every day.  But I don’t have the focus or stamina to finish a long piece of fiction.  Two things it takes to be a writer: talent and persistence.  I definitely struggle with the latter.  I struggle in general with anxiety in my life, but lots of it gets attached to poetry.

I’ve studied lots of books about procrastination, blocks, etc., trying to figure out why I finished an MFA and then stopped writing poetry entirely for a decade, and the short answer is a sort of anxiety about criticism and failure.

One sort anxiety starts when I open a new issue of Poetry magazine.  In some part of my thinking, I’ve made Poetry the pedestal for what counts as “good” poetry.  A mixture of anger and jealousy starts sometimes when I read a poem and can’t for the life of me figure out why that poem is better than the several thousand they rejected for that issue (90,000 submissions a year averages 7,500 submissions a month; last month they published work by 14 poets).  The demon dogs start barking, with all the reasons not to write poetry:

  • Most people don’t care about poetry
  • There are thousands of poets writing and submitting
  • It’s too late to be someone’s protégé
  • I have a better chance of winning the lottery than being a famous poet

Yes, there’s the f-word in my list.  I’ll be honest, when I dream of the successful poet’s life, it involves literary fame: giving readings to rapt audiences, running workshops with adoring participants, being known among people in the crowd at a conference.  It’s not a part of my personality that I am proud of, but I acknowledge.  Whenever I feel good about writing I find myself having flights of fancy about what I will say during an interview: “the idea for the book first came to me in an airplane over Cincinnati . . . ” (definitely the sign of an anxious person: practicing what to say ahead of time).

The reality of my dearth of publications is a good antidote for this sort of thinking.  I’d have more of a swagger in my step if I had real publications to think of.  Publication, though requires submission, requires calling your work “done,” requires putting the work out there to be rejected, and even though when editors reject most work it is totally gone from their consciousness I still imagine that moment of rejection (who does that Jonathan Jay Taylor think he is?).  Alas, my anxiety puts blocks in the way of decisions and actions that may result in criticism.  I fight it all the time, anything from grading papers to picking out paint colors, anything that I worry won’t be good enough my brain just likes to hold off on.

And yet, I keep coming back for more.

So, my next task is to get that submission mill going again, sending poems to journals. . . tomorrow . . .

“What Work Is”

“What Work Is” is a favorite poem of mine.  It’s by Philip Levine and it appears in the book of the same name, published by Knopf in 1991, which won the National Book Award.

http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/levine/what_work_is.php

I often teach it and read it aloud to students.  Like a lot of Levine’s work, it is conversational and accessible, but rewards close reading.  One of the courses I teach is Justice in Literature, which is a course required for Criminal Justice majors where I teach.  I use it as part of a unit on distributive justice in poems about work.

But I’ve studied it for its craft as well.  I love the changes in tone and how the poem somehow is both conversational and artistic in its language.  Levine begins setting the scene:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.

I first read this book as suggested reading for a poetry workshop with Herb Scott at Western Michigan University, only later knowing that Herb was a student of Levine’s.  Anyway, as a twenty-something poet I liked the audaciousness of the opening.  Poems are always announcing what poems are, and here Levine addresses the reader directly and then tells the reader off.  For the rest of the poem the “you” is the poet addressing himself, and the reader is forgotten.

And I liked the locale too.  Feeling like a Michigan poet myself, I connected to Levine’s writing about working in Detroit, although upon reflection that was kind of a superficial connection.  I lived in Kalamazoo, worlds away from Detroit. I had worked in a factory, but only for a couple of months, and I didn’t depend on the work to live. Even today, living in Big Rapids, Detroit seems like a different universe.  But he was writing about standing in line and waiting for work, something mundane, and finding meaning there.

The tone from there on is by turns carping, melancholic, and funny.  The futility of the situation, and the melancholic tone, arises when the narrator mistakes someone ahead for his brother:

You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.

Here Levine is using repetitions of sound and syntax to create structure and form within free verse.  The alliteration is clear in “same sad slouch.”  The phrases pile on top of one another to push the poem forward with a single sentence that stretches 11 lines.  Levine frequently uses anaphora and lists to build tension with long, rolling sentences that start building to a turn in tone or a resolution at the end of a piece.  Here the turn is toward love and then humor, both praising and then affectionately criticizing the brother who:

Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.

This bit of humor is a feint, a hesitation before Levine takes us to the end:

How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

So the final line restates the title and bookends the poem.  What “real” work is changes from the beginning to the end.  The first “work” is the sense of physical labor, and here it is also the denigration of the workers by those in power.  The second “work” is the work of the heart, the “work” of expressing affection, perhaps the difficulty of these two men to express affection for one another.

Even though I teach this as part of a unit on economics, the poem isn’t really much about that.  The subject of work is just the occasion for the poem, the springboard.  It doesn’t say much about work (hourly labor, that is), other than that work stinks.

But I do use it to teach about tone, to help students see how words and syntax and line create feeling.  It’s also an easy poem to get into, not a lot of language barriers, and my mostly-Michigan students like the local connection.

I’ve also used Levine’s poetics in my own work: seemingly mundane moments, long, driving sentences, dry humor that turns serious, everyday language, and the strong ending.  It was very useful to me to mimic Levine to learn how form evolves in a free-verse poem, and how language devices work to create tone.  However, like most affectations, I had to leave Levine behind.  The best observation I had recently was from the poet Fred Marchant: “you’re very committed to the sentence.”  He advised me to try some less well constructed sentences in my work.  I’ve come to not worry so much about being accessible either, but like any other phase of work, my time reading and imitating Levine taught me much.

Headed to Colrain

I’m leaving in a few days for the Colrain Poetry Manuscript conference in rural Massachusetts.  I’ll be attending for the second time.  At the conference, poets with manuscripts meet with other poets and editors to talk about putting together and publishing a book, so it’s unlike any other conference I’ve encountered.

Last time I went, I was on sabbatical and I went with the idea my book was pretty much finished and I just needed to know how to get it out there.  However, after the conference, my book fell apart, in a good way.  That is, I realized that my book never hung together in the first place, that it was a patchwork collection of poems of varied quality, many of which I was hanging on to just because I had them.  I also found my subject.

My older son, who is 9 now, has autism.  I had only just begun writing about my experience as a parent, and people at the conference responded most strongly to those poems.  To get ready for the conference, Joan Houlihan asks that you prepare some exercises, one of which is to collect your top five and worst five poems from the collection and prepare copies for the workshop group, without labeling which is which.  My selections met with confusion, because I put the new autism poems in the bottom five, and they liked those the most.  They disliked the whiny, entitled, self-conscious MFA-era poems which I had been hanging on to for a decade, and which I had put at the top.

During the last day, book editors meet with workshop groups.  We give them our complete mss. along with a cover letter, and they respond to them as if they were submissions.  I thought things were going well with my group; the editor and I had chatted the night before and we had a lot of similarities in both life circumstances and our poetics.  The reading was a disaster, though.  He didn’t get the first two poems, and after the third said, “Honestly, I would stop reading this manuscript at this point and reject it.” Ouch.  He did page through the rest of it, though, and picked out some things he liked, which were the poems I was least confident about.

That was a hard day, but it proved really valuable to my writing.  I realized the world was not in love with my writing as much as I was, so I should stop being in love with my writing and stop worrying about the world.  I also know poets will often, ironically, dislike poems that are close to their own work, because they seem off in some way. I also know that I go to creative writing conferences for an ego stroke, and that real criticism is hard to find. I also realized I was holding on to a certain image of a poem and a poet that hadn’t grown up at all in a decade.

So although I realize that the critique of my work was from essentially two people (the poet and the editor I worked with), and that those two people have their own biases, and that you should never write to please anyone but yourself, I took the criticism to heart, and it’s been a very productive eighteen months since then.

I’m going back with what I call my “autism collection” next week, less confident than last time, but much wiser.  Last time I made some good friends that I’ve kept in contact with, so I’m looking forward to new connections too.

MFA Days, Part I

I am sure this is the first of many posts to come about my MFA degree at Western Michigan University. Those years, 1993 to 1996, were some of the most formative of my adult, professional life. There have been many benefits to my time spent in MFA land (most notably, the degree allowed me to land a tenured job at a university). But it was not entirely positive.

I would definitely do it again, and probably would be more serious about it, but of course one cannot know that, not having already done it when one starts. I formed some strong views then about art and life and the relationship between the two, and I thought myself rather revolutionary for those views, but mostly I know I just created a persona that would fit in.

I began the degree already behind, already marked as a second-tier student. I had a relatively low GPA for graduate school. I had done my BA in English with a creative writing emphasis at WMU after a failed attempt at an Engineering degree (another long story). I got A’s in my creative writing workshops along with praise from professors, but B’s and the occasional C in literature courses, not due to lack of reading ability or writing on my part, but due to procrastination and an inferiority complex. WMU had these weird classes—the 500 level courses—that both undergraduate and graduate students could take. I took my Dante course that way, for example. Of course the graduate students dominated the seminar and had rich intellectual resources to call on. I was a junior, just getting going in my heavy-duty literature courses (beyond the intro/survey courses) and I found myself in a class with master’s and doctorate students, some of them from the Medieval Institute, who could actually read Italian. I sat silent the entire course, took copious notes, tried to wade through The Divine Comedy, researched my ass off, and still got a C in the course. I tried to make a connection with the professor once during a smoke break where a few of us were sitting in the stairwell listening to him prattle on about basketball. In my nervousness I ended up saying something about natural ability that came out sounding horribly racist. His most stinging comment on my papers was “You need to read your Virgil again.” The assumption, that I had already read The Aeneid, put me in my place. I did buy a copy of it that semester, but it still sits unread on my shelf to this day.

So, I got accepted to the MFA program on the condition that I complete two graduate-level literature courses with a B or better. I was also told that I would not be getting an assistantship, for two reasons: my sample paper for the application was “flawed,” and, since I was already at WMU, having done my BA there, they did not need to use the assistantship to recruit me. It was explained to me that they would rather produce two or three graduates rather than a single one with a BA, master’s degree, and Ph.D.

The outcome of this denial was that for the first year of my MFA, I was an outsider. One thing that I learned quickly as an undergraduate is that there is a strong difference between the idealized world of college presented by high school teachers, guidance counselors, and college brochures and the real world of being on campus and getting a degree done. Colleges are inhabited by people: flawed, political, limited people, and thus the experience will have flaws, politics, and limitations. The same is true for graduate school. The graduate students with assistantships, often younger students fresh from their bachelor degrees, had a bullpen of offices on the eighth floor of Sprau Tower, and had the shared experience of being through a week-long boot camp to learn how to teach and struggling together through their first teaching experiences (or had a year under their belt and were doling out advice). Naturally, they formed strong bonds, and were the insider folks. They talked about teaching (which I hadn’t done yet) they spent meals and evenings together, and they got invited to work on department projects. I was stuck on the outside, mostly with the middle-aged graduate students, those who has been away from school for a long time and had children and jobs and lives outside of graduate school. Just like in high school, I was with the outsiders and didn’t get to sit at the cool kids table at lunchtime.

There was another outsider group created by good intentions with unintended consequences. There were a couple scholarships reserved for minority students that gave them the same money as graduate assistants. The intent of the program was to relieve them of the burden of teaching so they could focus on their studies. The result was that they too felt marginalized, and they were denied the teaching experience that was essential for any hope of a continuing career in academia.

So I started the first week terribly nervous and with a strong sense of purpose. This was it. No more fooling around as an undergraduate. Time to grow up and get real.