Monday, September 28, 2009

you can talk and talk and talk...

When I became a writing teacher, there were a whole lot of adjustments I had to make...and most of them (as I've moaned about before) have to do with evaluation. Until someone finds out a way to grade student writing using scantron, us writing teachers end up with a whole lot of student essays to grade. Sitting in the room with a stack of papers in one hand and a red pen in the other does weird things to people--personally, it just used to make me bitter and revolutionary--so options are never a bad thing.

I went to student conferences instead of marking up essay drafts a long time ago. Generally, it's superior in every way. It does take up a little more time, but it also is dramatically easier on the soul. It's also more immediate. When students are unwittingly violating key rules, you can explain and demonstrate how things are supposed to work. When students are consciously not doing their work, you can get a glimpse on whether or not they're going to change their ways...and thus remain worthy of your time and attention.

The best part of conferences, though, happens when you can see the shining light of reason dawn in student eyes.

When I run my first batch of conferences, people are more panic-filled than anything else. I have (no exaggeration) had tears shed during week two of the semester. This is mostly because I believe in immersion-learning, meaning throwing the students in the deep end immediately...just so they completely understand how deep really is the water. Nothing I can say, for instance, about leaving yourself enough time to revise is quite as effective as only giving students one week to do their first assignment.

Now, however, is when the class starts to change in glorious ways. People know what they need to do with their papers before they come into my office. When I explain a concept, they nod their heads rather than stare at me like I've lost my mind.

Today, in one of my conferences, I was explaining how argument points should build on each other into a complex, unified thesis. The student was silent for a second before exclaiming "that's a really good note" and diving for something on which to write down my words o' wisdom.

I've been doing this silly job for years, so I should be able to occasionally "wow" them with my knowledge...but it's always nice to see visual proof that I am indeed not a fraud.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

music and fate

Ages ago, I chronicled my experience trying to get into a band (which is, incidentally, better written and more accurately descriptive of my feelings than I recall). Since then, my lifelong relationship to music has more or less followed a predictable pattern: restring a guitar, mess around with it for a few days, get buried in an avalanche of work, forget about the guitar, sit on my couch grading, see guitar gathering dust, get all mopey and contemplative, repeat cycle. Throughout it all, the one constant was feeling that the "guitar player" part of my identity was slipping away, decaying through its half life, leading me inevitably and inexorably to a point where I become merely a guy who used to think of himself as a guitar player when he was younger. This, I believed, was fate.

Things inevitably happen, though. During my really good weekend recently, I found myself, during the course of one evening's drinking, going from "guy who sometimes likes to still think of himself as a guitar player occasionally" to "guy who is somehow in a band with another guitar player and a drummer." Then we somehow recruited a bass player before the weekend was out. Then we set a rehearsal date...and it seemed that for once, I was finally able to slap fate in the mouth.

Figuring more distortion could only help cover how out of shape my playing was, I went online and purchased a highly recommended distortion pedal from a well-reviewed music store. However, it never came, and when I finally contacted the store, they told me that their post office loses about a package a week...and it apparently was my I still don't have it. Sigh...score one for fate.

But I was hoping for improvement. When it finally came time to play together, I was pleased to find out that I was not as rusty as, by all rights, I should be. My fingers were actually cooperating. Moreover, my 1973 Les Paul Custom (which, in a fit of madness, I actually contemplated selling) sounded amazing when I was able to crank up the volume on the Marshall and put the spurs to it. And the day turned out fairly productive...we faked our way through some parts of songs, developed fragments of three original songs, and assembled a list of cover songs to learn.

Lest it seem that everything was going too smoothly or that I was coming out ahead, however, my amplifier started to make some weird noise when I first plugged in...we initially just put it down to schmutz in the system. Then I went to show our bass player a chord progression, touched her instrument, and received an electrical shock. Wondering if it was me or her, I touched the other guitar player's instrument and was shocked again. Near the end of the session, I was doing a stupid "never stop soloing" moment at the end of the song, and the other guitar player grabbed my instrument to stop me...and herself received a massive electrical blast.

Initially, we thought it must've been just the result of rental house wiring (where landlords regularly do not overly concern themselves with building codes or proper standards of maintenance). Yet when I went over to my guitar player's house this week to work out some parts, my amplifier refused to do anything other than an electronic gargle. So, having realized that my amp was on the verge of death, I took it to a recommended repair shop. Only two problems, though. First, I have to pay for the first hour in advance (which works out to be $70). Second, they'll get to the amp in 2-3 weeks. This wouldn't be a problem if I was still "occasional guitar player guy," but we have a practice session lined up for Friday.

Yes, it's not just my almost overwhelming workload that prevents me from being a's also some twisted combination of fate and whatever vindictive deities rule the world of electronic sound amplification.

But I won't let it get me down. This time, I'll just strum really loudly.