Every Easter, as devoted readers of this blog know, it is my regular ritual to tell a story. Not the Passover tale, oh no. Not the Resurrection. No, Easter on this blog is the occasion for the retelling of the Rabbit Horror of My Childhood. For the uninitiated, a quick click here will reveal the full, original version of the story. For those averse to clicking, the short version goes like so: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.
Of course, as I’ve been telling this story with some regularity for a few years now, my parents have decided that they need to get in on the act, reclaiming a bit of their own voice in the proceedings and taking a bit of the piss out of my retelling. My mother, for example, has developed a recurring gag using ever-larger greeting cards. Here is this year’s addition to the Ginormous Rabbit Card Collection, again pictured next to a terrier for scale:
Usually, Dad and I laugh a bit about the story (he laughs a bit harder than I do…) and think nothing more of it. He is not usually as…creative, I suppose, about the subtler forms of revenge humor as Mom is. Much of the grandparental energy nowadays, after all, is devoted to my wee nephew, who was the happy recipient of candy, glowy egg things (don’t ask), and gleeful, funny, noticeably little surprises from his elders this morning. Lucky little punk.
It was photos of said nephew, sent out to us all via The Magic of Social Media, that prompted Dad to remember that this year he had actually tried (and failed, thankfully) to find another giant inflatable bunny to send to me. He called me about an hour ago to tell me so, and we laughed and laughed and laughed…
As I was helping out a bit in the archives at work last week, I came across a familiar name in an unfamiliar context: the name of Lowell Mason, which (as it turns out) refers to two very different men who are a part the ongoing development of religious music in the United States.
The first Lowell Mason (the one with whom I was originally familiar) was the “father of American church music”, born in 1792 in Massachusetts. I’ve written a little about him here on the blog before — he was both a great composer and arranger of hymn tunes and a great advocate of the kind of formal musical education that ultimately aimed at killing off the informal, communal musical traditions of his time (the sort of music one learned in church-affiliated “singing schools” and song gatherings, often done using shape-note practice).* He was a great believer in music’s moral power, beyond its capacity for eliciting pleasure or intellectual and aesthetic appreciation.
The second Lowell Mason, with whom I was not familiar until this past week, is “Little Lowell” Mason, still-living southern gospel singer with a still-living mission as of this writing. He’s a very old man now (born c. 1937), but he still tours and sings; he was even in my former home town, Storm Lake, in 2014, although I never knew it at the time. While his size (Mr. Mason has dwarfism) was originally presented as a hook in promotional materials (he, like others, was presented as a “singing midget”, a term no longer preferred), it is mostly irrelevant to the deeper content of his musical ministry, which is quite different in tone and style from that of the composer whose name he shares. Where the Father of American Church Music was formal and lofty in his philosophical aspiration, the still-living singer is, in his way, a triumph of that earlier, participant-driven informal religious music tradition. His is a cheerfully popular style, the sort of music that demands tapping feet and clapping hands and singing along.
One wonders what the first Lowell would make of the music of the second; leaving aside the former’s likely disdain for the “sensuous” content of purely popular styles in general, both men nonetheless have in common a certainty that one reaches toward the divine through music, and if their forms of religious joy may look or sound different, they nonetheless seem to be aimed in the same spiritual direction.
It’s time again for some library collection weeding — the Reference section, this time — and that means it is also time for another round of Weird Stuff I Found In The Collection. Yay!
This week’s theme: Vintage Sexism (It’s Still A Thing)!
Once upon a time in 1949, prolific editor/compiler of books of quotations, toasts and anecdotes Lewis C. Henry (variously published as L.C. Henry, Lewis Copeland, Lewis Copeland Henry, etc.) published a handy little volume called Toasts for All Occasions. It’s a small collection of brief remarks, some attributed to famous authors, some treated as general or common knowledge, and some plainly written by Henry himself. The content is divided by themes or occasions, and it’s the sort of text one imagines old Toastmasters members would keep around as a handy resource. Its tone is all avuncular bonhomie of a sort that might conceivably help a nervous public speaker project confidence.
It is also a snapshot of its time, as one might expect. In the section devoted to toasts appropriate for the Army (a very small selection), for example, we discover the following two bits of sentimental sexism:
The parallel constructions here are clever, and one can easily imagine a man speaking to other men in this way in 1949 and getting enthusiastic responses. What jars reading it now (and perhaps also then, from a woman’s point of view) is the comfortable sense of entitlement underlying both toasts — as if it were women’s duty to get it on with men who serve (ignoring, of course, all of the women who also serve), as if sex and its related comforts were the reward properly owed as “recompense” for service. The transactional romance here rankles (and stands as yet another data point for any ongoing chronicle of how certain contemporary sex and gender norms developed).
There is also a competing antipathy for the relationships that the military romance transaction appears to commend:
This (again, rather clever and nicely written) toast is actually in a section devoted to “Bachelors and Spinsters”, which includes mostly pitying comments on single women of a certain age and the usual parson’s mousetrap/ball and chain gags about marriage as a form of bondage for men (even as it is posed as a necessary fulfillment of women’s nature). Antipathy and desire are presented in constant tension, naturally, as a sort of joke (I am reminded, oddly, of Hannah Gadsby’s discussion of comedy and tension in Nanette…).
Obviously, this is not a revolutionary text. It tidily reinforces norms that have always been in tension with each other. The same relationships that are owed are also scorned, a payment that is also a trap. It’s sort of a horrifying way to think about other people, honestly, and it speaks to what makes some approaches to masculinity so toxic. What’s worst, though, is that it is genuinely a charming little book. Reading it is a bit like spending time with a friendly old reprobate, someone who is both personally rather fun to be around and also intensely off-putting.
As mentioned in the first post in this series, my subconscious has been having a bit of fun with me as I grapple with the maddening process of moving from my old home to a new one. Because the brain-noise hits keep coming, I’m sharing those oddball dreams here.
Dream 2: Monday Avenue
It all began with furniture.
My mother and I were selecting and arranging a sofa and some chairs in my new house’s living room. It was fun, actually, and a little surreal — the sofa unexpectedly turned out to be a convertible sofa-bed, and the randomly appearing chairs coordinated with it no matter what shape or color it took. Then, for no reason at all, the mirror above the fireplace mantel disappeared and was replaced with a sort of hole, inviting (we thought) the purchase and placement of a television.
Obviously, we had to go find one, so we trotted off into the night down Monday Avenue to find a pawn shop.* Also: for some reason, we were not going to the pawn shop to buy a television. We were going because I suddenly needed a part-time job.
The pawn shop we found was small. When we entered the single front room, it was decorated like someone’s idea of an old saloon — red cloth-textured wallpaper and too much mahogany combined into something faintly lurid. The proprietor and another man were talking at the counter, both using an exaggerated Boston Southie dialect. When I told them why I was here, I was given a sort of test to see if I knew what I needed to know to properly value the objects brought in to pawn. I noticed that behind the counter, there was a carefully secured shelf full of books that I instinctively knew to be nearly worthless — damaged middle volumes of unpopular old series, worm-worried journals, assorted artsy novelties, and a middle-grade literature textbook from the 1940s that seemed a bit water-damaged.
It occurred to me that things might not be as they appeared here.
Just as the proprietor was about to tell me when to start working (apparently, I passed the test), two young men with old guns entered the shop, shouting angrily. My mother and I thought that this would be a good time to leave, so we hustled out into the night on Monday Avenue. On the way back to my house**, we suddenly detoured into a gigantic church full of people (mostly women and children) who seemed to be waiting for something. We waited, too, until we stopped waiting and ran off into the night again.
We never did get that television.
*I have no idea where Monday Avenue is, or why it featured so heavily in my dreaming mind.
**My new house is not on Monday Avenue. I have no idea why my brain kept insisting that it would be, or that it might be nearby. There is no Monday Ave in the town to which I am moving, as far as I know. There is, as it happens, a Monday Ave in or around Mount Airy, NC, which is the town where Andy Griffith grew up (the model for Mayberry). Make of this odd little fact what you will.
Moving to a new house is often a bit nightmarish. It’s a lot of work managing the innumerable details of the process (selling or ending a lease on a house, buying or renting a new one, packing, finding a moving solution, changing addresses, changing banks, dealing with utilities and other service providers at both ends, cleaning…). It can be stressful and expensive, and I don’t know many people who do it for fun (although fun can be had along the way).
With my own move coming up alarmingly fast, I find myself having actual nightmares (or at least very weird dreams) about it. I’ve decided to share them. That’s what they say about nightmares, isn’t it? The more the merrier?*
Dream 1: The Wrong House
I woke up in the wrong house.
That is, it was my house. I knew it was my house — I was lying in my own bed, my dogs were in the room with me, I was surrounded by my own stuff — but once I left my bedroom, it was abundantly clear that everything about it was wrong. The layout had changed and expanded in unexpected directions. Outside, the yard was still fenced, but differently — just a small bit was confined by a fence in a style quite unlike the one I expected to see.
There was an old woman inside with her daughters (I’m not sure how many — they seemed always to hover in the background, busy at some chore or other). She didn’t seem at all alarmed to see me, although she insisted the house was hers, and not mine. She cheerfully led me through ever-increasing halls and rooms and corridors, insisting that she knew just how to help me.
As we traveled, I noticed that slowly, terribly, inexorably, every room was becoming a dining room in some historical period decor or other. The old woman’s cheerfulness began to wear a little thin when she noticed (I think it was the weirdo fuzzy white 1970s dining set that nearly broke her). We moved as quickly as we could, but we could never escape it — every turn led to a table and chairs and a sideboard, and we knew that we didn’t dare stop to rest, or we’d be waiting forever for dinner.
*Obviously, no, they do not say this about nightmares. Nor should they, whoever “they” are.
This weekend marked an end and a beginning, embodied in one last, long trip across familiar ground toward something new.
There were signs along the way, including the always incongruous guidepost of a light across the corn (nowhere near the water).
From above, the vast scale of Iowa’s farmland — across which a guiding light might indeed be helpful — became visible in its winter uniform of browns and grays and faded greens, not yet covered in the snow to come.
There was a lot of water on the way, though, and the amazing sight of Chicago in the winter haze on Lake Michigan…
…and a bend in the river between Illinois and Indiana under a dramatic sky.
And finally I arrived at a new home, the site of my new adventure, with a holiday-bright holly tree growing in the wooded yard.
This is only the beginning of the real journey, of course — there are moving boxes and a million details in my future, and the frightening fun of starting a new job in a new place with amazing new people — but I already feel like I’m ready for this to be home.
Long, long ago, I started a little series here on the ol’ blog about using the ACRL Information Literacy Framework to design my Fall 2018 Introduction to Philosophy syllabus. The course was built with the Information Creation as Process frame as a guide for doing a wee bit of backward design magic to generate outcomes and then fill in tools and methods for instruction and assessment.
The time has come at last, as this semester staggers off into a snowy sunset, to take stock of the success (such as it is) of my attempt. In this post, as promised back in September, “I’m going to take a look at likely problems and issues worth taking seriously in consideration of this course as a model for applying the Framework.”
The Best Laid Plans…
The course I designed (built specifically to meet the needs of intro-level non-majors with varying levels of prior writing experience and no other acquaintance with philosophy) was fairly straightforward: students would read a general audience-friendly set of texts, take regular quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam to demonstrate their comprehension of the assigned reading, write two essays to practice identifying their own positions and making their own arguments, and learn some basic research and reading skills through a regular end-of-unit article collection assignment.
Under ideal conditions, this course setup would result in (I hoped) a class of students who could at least dip a brave toe in the waters of proper philosophical argument and analysis, having acquired some of the necessary reading, thinking, writing, and research skills for doing so. They would, at minimum, leave the course slightly more able to find and analyze information and slightly more practiced at developing their understanding and presentation of that information. The Process would be more familiar to them, and they could take what they learned in this class to other disciplinary areas and put it to good use.
Of course, the class wasn’t actually run under ideal conditions. Some things got edited in mid-stream to fit changes in the schedule. Quizzes sort of…disappeared, late in the term, because I fell behind in creating them. The research assignment turned out to need more tweaking, mostly to account for tech and accessibility problems. Still, I think that when things did work, they worked well, and for the most part when they didn’t, it was because I wasn’t keeping up as well as I would have liked, not because the plan itself was faulty (so: execution errors, not design errors, were the major issues here).
Let’s break this down by assignment type:
Quizzes and Exams
The quizzes were all short — 5 questions, 2 pts per question, a mix of multiple choice and short answer/short essay tasks. While I had originally intended to confine myself to multiple choice questions (mostly to save myself grading time), I discovered that the short answer/essay responses told me a lot more about where the students were in their comprehension of the reading material. The accomplished what I used to use pre-meeting online discussions to do: getting students to generate their own explanations and arguments. If I were ever to teach a course of this kind again, I’d spend the month before start of term rewriting the quizzes; even with the increased grading time needed to manage short essay tasks like this, it would be worth it.
The midterm exam (really more of a Supersized Quiz) was written right around the time I realized I needed to lean on essay/answer instead of multiple choice, and turned out to be a reasonably good indicator of who was “getting it” and who wasn’t. The final (to take place in a couple of weeks) will be much the same, I expect.
I was most happy with my essay process, even if I did find myself tweaking and changing details up to the last minute for each one. The process for each of the two essays began with a set of questions meant to help each student to identify her own position and think about its advantages and potential shortcomings. Then students generated outline-shaped drafts of their papers (filling out a template that I gave them), and posed questions and offered comments to each other in a discussion forum for the purpose of peer review. Finally, taking on board both their peers’ comments and mine, they revised their initial outline drafts into a final paper. I ended up quite liking the results — the students who entered into the process in good faith and put some thought into it got pretty reliably decent results (nothing I’d send on to a conference, but solid work demonstrating a grasp of essentials nonetheless). When it went well, it went very well, and students did a good job of actually engaging their peers’ critical notes and suggestions.
This went…less well. I set my class up in Zotero and arranged for them to contribute a set number of articles (one per unit, typically) in a Group there. I showed them how to use the system to generate correctly formatted citations for their own papers, how to tag and organize, etc. We talked about what constitutes an appropriate source for this assignment (i.e. STOP LINKING SEP AND WIKIPEDIA ENTRIES, DARN IT, AND GO DO FURTHER RESEARCH!). Some of them really got into it and used the system well. Others didn’t seem to grasp the relationship between the information they entered, linked, or created and the information the system put out when they tried to generate citations. We struggled, early on, to manage some tech issues. I admit that I didn’t always find the time to comment and correct work on this assignment as much as I can now see that I should have.
The in-class discussions of the articles we found reminded me, too, that a) I needed to ensure access to material much earlier to make sure it got read — I hadn’t allowed enough time, and b) I would have been better off picking articles and only requiring the class to address short sections of them, perhaps with some specific reading comprehension agenda in mind.
This one was fine for a first try in Intro, but I’d definitely do it differently now that I’ve seen how it goes. I would certainly budget more time early on for learning to find materials, learning how to evaluate them, and learning some reading comprehension tricks. I would also budget more time for learning the Zotero tools, and perhaps set up a couple of small introductory quizzes or tasks to check student understanding of the system.
Was this a successful use of the Framework? I think, on the whole, that it was — or that it at least came close to it. If I were in the position to regularly teach this class again, I know exactly which things to change to make it work better. As a model for others, I would suggest it not as a tried-and-true template for a course, but rather as an example of the kind of thinking it might be worth doing in order to create a class in which information literacy instruction is built into the whole thing rather than added as an embellishment or optional feature.