Zion National Park, Zhang Yimou-Style

For those of you who haven't been following my recent exploits, early summer is when I start doing my Partners in the Parks projects. Partners is a program I run with my colleague Matt Nickerson, the Southern Utah University honors director. The gist of it is this: we take college honors students to national parks for a week at a time. They hike, learn from professors and rangers about park management and resources, and really get a deep experience instead of a four hour drive through, which is common for most Americans. We're funded through a National Parks Service grant, and we get some pretty amazing access. This summer I'll be leading or advising projects in Zion National Park, Grand Canyon-Parashant (in the remote NW section of the Grand Canyon, and Denali National Park in Alaska. We'll also be exploring new possibilities for projects in Olympic National Park in Washington, Great Basin, King's Canyon, and Sequoia. We also have projects that I am not directly overseeing in Cape Hatteras and Manhattan (many are unaware of the many, many urban NPS sites).

For the last two days I've been hiking through an upper section of Zion National Park, called Kolob Canyons. This morning we awoke to snow. We knew it was coming, but we sort of hoped we'd be wrong about that. It made for a miserable slog: lots of mud and being cold, but it was spellbindingly beautiful.

I kept expecting to see Chinese warriors flying overhead with spears and flowing silk robes, engaging in silent battle between the sandstone ramparts and the mist.

Today was hard going, but it was very beautiful. It was a good day, all in all, because I had good gear, I was in pretty good shape, and I was at work.

To Do List

In the spirit of my friend Scott Rogers, I will post the end of the semester to do list. This is pretty much in the order of stuff what I got to do first.

  • Review syllabi for all classes, to see what I said is due.
  • Respond to 4 ENGL 2010 student podcast assignments.
  • Write 3 final exam questions on Gibson's Neuromancer.
  • Write 2 final exam questions on the film Moon.
  • Respond to 4 more ENGL 2020 short stories.
  • Respond to 1 more 50 page novel section for ENGL 4020.
  • Respond to remaining 4020 reading responses (this is going to suck).
  • Write up response to Dean's new policies.
  • Figure out exactly when Ike will not be in school.
  • Schedule early final with testing center.
  • Respond to ENGL 2020 portfolios.
  • Respond to ENGL 2010 final projects.
  • Grade ENGL 2130 exams and compute grades.
  • Send failure/low grade notifications to students.
  • Go through ENGL 4020 portfolios.
  • Final grades for ENGL 2010.
  • Final grades for ENGL 2020.
  • Final grades for ENGL 2130.
  • Final grades for ENGL 4020.
  • Plan for Partners in the Parks Zion project.
  • Plan for Partners in the Parks Grand Canyon-Parashant Project.
  • Schedule dentist appointment.
  • Schedule annual physical.
  • Schedule annual skin cancer screening.
  • Enter evaluation data into spreadsheet.
  • Nap in the hammock with a book on my face.

Just a Little Break from Grading

A student of mine tried to argue in an essay that they are right because a person holding the opposite position is stupid. Trying to work out the logic:

P holds Position X Position X = Stupid P is therefore also Stupid

Position Y ≠ Position X Q holds Position Y Q is therefore not Stupid

Hmmm. I think that's how it breaks down. In any case, dear student, hie thee now and sign up for Dr. Fiztpatrick's logic class, please, before you run for office or get a show on AM 590.

Okay, back to grading, seriously, with maybe a break later to bake a Linzertorte.

Students Get Mad

Students get mad when they come to my office and tell me things like this:

Dr. Petersen, I worked with that Adobe Acrobat for an hour last night, and I could not make it combine files like you told us it would.

Because my next move is to start up Acrobat on my computer and show them this welcome screen and ask them to pick which button they think will help them combine files.

Picture 1

Which button would you choose? I know which one I'd use, but perhaps it is easier for me because I use computers a lot. In any case, the point of my rant today is that I now believe, unfortunately, that each successive generation does not necessarily get better at using technology. Perhaps if their computer was hooked directly to their phone or to a Rock Band guitar controller, this would all seem more natural to them.

I do realize that the Acrobat Professional applications in the labs might have the welcome screen shut off, meaning they could be left on their own to flail around for hours in the dark and dreary waste until finding a menu item like this one.

Picture 3

Sigh...I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Some Projects

I'm off to another conference (sigh). This makes three out-of-towns in October, which is really high on the "¡Aye Carumba!" scale. So high, it's actually prompting a change in behavior on my part: I'm planning to back off outward expressions of my creative life, at least for the moment. Rift is out, and there's a certain amount of work to be done there with readings and events and promotion, but other than that, I'm itching to make new things and finish old projects. This means I'm not necessarily going to say no to new projects and appearances, but I'm going to start selecting things that fit into the "create mode" rather than the "present mode." There is a time and a place for present, but I feel like I've been presenting myself into a place where my store of created material is becoming depleted pretty fast. The tank isn't on empty, but it's not on full either.

I want to finish a collection of interlocking stories I've been working on for a really long time. It's called Small World, and there will be six long stories of about 25-30 pages each. In each story a character and/or situation from a preceding story will take center stage. In fact, each successive story will add to the plot and subtext of the earlier stories. Yes, it is a little bit like LOST in story format.

I want to throw myself into the blog a bit more. I am working on short memoir posts. On my trip to DC this week, I'm going to be sketching these things out. I'm also working on some ideas about how a creative life and family life spark when they bump into each other. I'll have a long first post out this Sunday.

And finally I want to work on my retelling of the old folktale "The Little Red Hen." In my version, the hen asks for help from a pig, a cat, a goose, and a coldwar-era Soviet tactical robot.

Requiem for a Dream

Because of my recent focus on the fiction writing side of things, I realized that I hadn't been to an academic conference in a while, and I decided I should keep my head in the game. I got a PhD instead of an MFA because I have an interest in and knack for the nerd mongering that goes on in the upper vaults of the ivory tower. Just to keep it real, I gave a paper on heist films.

Academic conferences are strange beasts. In theory it sounds like the coolest thing possible: get a bunch of super dweebs together to talk about the things that fuel their rockets. These people, being in such close proximity, will generate a field of raw intelligence that will blot out the sun. It all sounds to me like a kind of Burning Man for college teachers.

In this temporary geektopia, the world is writ small, and then enlarged again, through the magnifying properties of something people in the know like to call a discourse. When the conference ends, I always expect to return from the mountain, touched by the one or more of the Muses. I always think I will be furiously scribbling notes in the airport and on the flight home. I imagine I'll return to the classroom, tell everyone to stand on their desks and throw out the syllabus—we'll guide ourselves through the rest of the semester with excitement. The upgraded courses will be so full of new ideas and features that students will shut their phones and start taking notes on pieces of paper with real pencils and pens and love learning forever.

But it almost never works out like this.

My experience with academic conferences is so unlike the hope I always hold for them. What's the most depressing, I'm afraid, is the simple fact that most academics are absolutely dreadful in front of a crowd.

If you've never been to one of these conferences or seen one of these presentations, imagine Miles Davis and his late–career disdain for the audience, minus his ability to play the trumpet better than ninety-nine percent of everyone who as ever put a horn to their lips. The issue is not their ideas, or even their passion. They all seem so tired (I guess I'm included), and these presentations are often the last thing on our long list of things that must be done, a list that dominates the other lists of things we want/hope/wish we could do.

Know that I don't arrive as a hostile audience. I am sincerely hoping to have my mind blown. I am the kid who, full of hope and ecstasy, orders sea monkeys out of a comic book, and when they finally arrive I end up, chin in hands, watching clumps of brown powder fall lifelessly to the bottom of the fish bowl.

Usually, on the last night of a conference. I retire to my room. Watch some television, and think to myself as I pack my bags that these hotels and conference centers are where ideas come to die. I want to have a different attitude, but a pattern has been emerging, and I have been observing it for fifteen years now.

There is hope. For every conference, there are a number of confederate ones that take place over dinner, in the elevators, and in the Q & A sessions that follow the gray wasteland of the headliners. I am always energized by the things people say when they are not on the schedule.

So, here's the conference of my dreams: take our proposals, put a dozen of us who appear to be likeminded into a room, bring some nice treats, close the door, and come back in two hours.

Subject: The Outside

This might be the best student evaluation I've ever gotten. This student wasn't in my class this semester because he'd been incarcerated. He writes:

Dr. P,

Once again the simple minded folks at the Utah DOC have set me loose upon society. I want to express thanks for the great things your mentoring provided to me. I can and will write, perhaps even shit people will want to read. In spite of the fact you have previous knowledge of this, I want to say that you are a great mind, you have and will continue to inspire. There are great writers who are a little mental, or a lot. I count myself among them, the really disturbed and dysfunctional, unique futuristic writers. I know your [sic] probably thinking, "Get off my leg."

Thanks anyways. Warren (not his real name)

Well, good luck, Warren. Stay out of the pokey, and write something that counts. Do I really hope that all of my incarcerated students think about me on the inside? I guess that would be kind of awesome, sort of...

Good Ideas of AY 2008-2009

The end of the year the pundits round up major accomplishments and newsworthy ideas and such and use them to fill a few news cycles. It's time for person of the year, gadget of the year, story of the year. Instead of aggregating other ideas, I thought I'd go through my notebooks and generate a list of my ten best ideas of the last academic year. Why not? Who else is going to? I also thought that for teachers the calendar year isn't as important as the academic one, so here goes.

1. Library Economy vs. Bookstore Economy.

One of my good friends and colleagues, Matt Nickerson, is a librarian. Through my association with him, I have learned that library use has changed a lot over the last decade or so. A lot of that change seems to be due in part to computer use. In any case, one thing librarians want to achieve is getting books and students together.

This has led us to a number of discussions on the subject of how professors get students into libraries. I responded at one point by saying, "They don't. Teachers bring the books to students in the form of text books. Then once or twice a semester they send them off to the library to find support materials."

The big idea is this: what if the library was the primary text? What would happen in a class in which you said that on a certain day the discussion would be on the subject of "first person narration," use the library and be ready for discussion? I am also imagining all kinds of hybrid assignments where I assign one text and students need to add two more two the mix—their choice.

2. Using Cloud Computing On-line Applications in the classroom.

This is now a no-brainer. Google Docs is my number one choice for managing tons of documents. The searching means that the Google Docs account can really be one big bucket into which I throw these documents. No complex filing directory is necessary. It is kind of a blunt instrument, though. It's almost just an online text editor. I don't think Google Docs is a good composing tool, but it is great for sharing documents and collaborating on them as well.

Adobe's Buzzword, is really beautiful and actually easier on the eyes than most on-line apps. It outputs really nicely to a PDF, which I can have students integrate very nicely into a digital portfolio. I have tried Zoho tools, and they just don't seem to work quite right for me and from my perspective. I have tried to like them.

The use of online apps for collaboration makes the most immediate sense, but once I gained a little facility with the tools, I started to learn a little about how to hack the basic use for some interesting results.

My best discover is the use of what I'm calling the Standing Evaluation. Because I use narrative rather than quantitative evaluation in my courses, I need some way to communicate my responses and feedback to the students. I have discovered that if I instruct a student to share a google document with me, we can use that document as a platform for the evaluation. It's ongoing, so I get to see everything I've written for that semester, and whenever I add anything it's within a context of continuity. I can really chart growth. Students like it because they have a chance to respond, like with your credit report, it's just less difficult: they are free to respond to any comment. The best students do, and it's a real joy to have a conversation about their performance.

3. The Hobbit is a heist narrative.

I have been working on ideas about heist films for a while now, and it hit me over the head like a sack of money: The Hobbit is a heist, Gandalf's 14, if you will. More on this later. I have the seeds of a conference paper germinating at the moment. I does foil my initial heist paper thesis that the heist isn't a good genre for fiction but that it works best in film.

4. Putting an old lampshade iMac in the kitchen.

It's not the fastest, but man, that rotatable, tiltable screen is great for brining up a recipe or watching the Daily Show on Hulu when you're cleaning up.

5. Not getting a snow blower.

We're getting to the point that (a) I can be outside without worrying that the kids will kill themselves, and (b) Alisa's been helping, and it's kind of nice to be out there shoveling with her. It can be quite lovely, in facr. Not an issue, though, for another six months probably. I do have a leaf blower, which I pretty much can't do without.

To Do List: Making it Public

My friend Scott Rogers faithfully publishes a to do list at the end of every semester, which he makes public, and for good reason. Every time I read it, I feel more compelled to push forward on my own projects.

To finish out the semester, I need to:

  1. Read 2020-01 Portfolios
  2. Read 2020-02 Portfolios
  3. Update 1010 Figurator™
  4. Draft 3030 Acceptance Letter
  5. Send 3030 Acceptance E-mail
  6. Follow up on Illustrations for Bullhorn
  7. Read 4000-level Playwriting Assessment Submissions
  8. Notify 2020 Students Who Need Final Conference
  9. Enter Grades for 2020 Courses
  10. Enter Grades for 3030 Course
  11. Grade 1010 Final Essays
  12. Enter 1010 Final Grades
  13. Work on 3030 Magazine Template
  14. Go to Honors Final Screening

That should just about do it.

This Chart is Saving My Life

It's pretty hard to say no to people. And I have needed a way to make sure that I can keep my projects in line. So, I decided to make a flow chart. At first I thought it was silly, but I like fiddling around in Illustrator, so I kept at it. I've now got people asking me for copies, and it's made me a lot clearer on my own priorities. Click on the image to see it big.

Decision Maker

I'm going to print up copies and hand them out like tracts. Props to Merlin Mann of 43 Folders for his work with the Qualified Yes.

Like Wind Blowing Through Holes in My Brain

I just finished my fifth year Leave Rank and Tenure report, which is also my application for rank advancement. If I should pass this review, I'll be advanced from Assistant Professor to Associate professor.

I think this means that I will now be able to associate with the professors rather than just assist them. It also means a little bit more money (in reality, something like 1/8 of a run of the mill NBA bad sportsmanship fine).

But that doesn't matter. The document is finished. Holes punched. Arranged artfully in a 4" three-ring binder. Ready for submission (I'm laughing that it's always due the day after labor day — nothing like a performance review to spice up a barbecue!).

Now there is a lightness and freedom in my mind. It feels cool, like the wind blowing through holes in my mind. Perhaps I'll reward myself by going to see Tropic Thunder.