Parsing the waiting list

Let us take your class!
Let us take your class!*

So I teach a class that’s VERY popular and has pretty limited seats –18 according to the schedule.  I usually allow three or four students to add the class, but since it’s a seminar-style course, more than that would make the conversation and experience pretty different and difficult.  Not to mention the extra grading for me.

So I’ve been keeping a waiting list of students who request to get one of the additional slots, and I’m curious to hear from my shuffling horde of readers how they would handle the list.  Do you do “first-come, first-served?”  Do you give priority to students with pressing needs (If I can take this class, I will graduate in the Spring)?  Other considerations?

* Photo by Mark Lobo Photography, used under CC license.

That’s a lot of detectives!

Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction
Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction

The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction
edited by Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A Marchino

I’m using this book in my Literary Genres: Detective Fiction class this semester, so I skimmed it to determine which readings to assign, and now I’ve been reading it thoroughly as the class works their way through it. Lots of good stories and some decent commentary. Thoughts:

  • The book is divided into 3 sub-sections: the amateur, the private investigator, and the police detective. I’ve combined this setup with Gary Hoppenstand’s reading of additional sub-genres such as Hard-boiled and Avenger. We also have a unit on Feminist detectives and one on Supernatural detectives.
  • The commentary in the book is decent, with solid introductions by Mansfield-Kelley and Marchino, and good essays from Maida and Spornik, Chandler, Kaufman and Kay, Panek, and McBain. The other essays tend to get a little too enthusiastic (from a fan perspective) for my taste.

The stories are a solid mix of the three subsets above. Some thoughts on my favorites:

  • Poe, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” – this story’s historical importance demands that it be included, but as a mystery, it’s a pretty big cheat.
  • Doyle, “Silver Blaze” – Like Robert Ray, I’m enamored of the two awesome phrases in the story: “the curious incident of the dog in the night time,” and “the immense significance of the curried mutton.”
  • Christie, “Witness for the Prosecution” – an excellent story that’s tighter than most of Christie. Alas, one of the commentary articles gives away the ending. I warned students to read the story first. Disaster averted!
  • Sayers, “The Haunted Policeman,” and Carr, “The House in Goblin Wood” – classics of the “puzzle game” genre, and lame. It turns out I don’t have much taste for the short story puzzle game.
  • Queen, “My Queer Dean” – spoonerisms are important in today’s society.
  • Maron, “Deborah’s Judgement” – an excellent example of the more thoughtful character studies produced since women invaded the P.I. genre in the 1970s. Nice.
  • Hammett, “The Gutting of Couffignal” – the avenger detective in full regalia here. Not that interesting.
  • Chandler, “Trouble Is My Business,” worth reading for the title alone.
  • Grafton, “The Parker Shotgun,” excellent. Great characters and a tight mystery. Plus, great title. See Chandler.
  • Paretsky, “Skin Deep,” Haywood, “And Pray Nobody Sees You,” and Rozan, “Going Home.” Each tight and entertaining. The last one especially captures the noir sensibility that runs through much PI fiction.
  • McBain, “Sadie when she died,” Rankin, “The Dean’s Curse,” and Howard, “Under Suspicion” all sizzle along nicely. I can take or leave the other Police mysteries in the set.

Overall, a nice selection of short form detective fiction, and a good introduction to the genre. I encourage readers to tackle the stories first and return to the commentary afterward, though I believe the only spoiler occurs in the Maida/Spornick article.

Good detectives don’t believe in coincidence

Today is the first meeting of my detective fiction class. Here’s the OED word of the day. Coincidence? I think not.

clueful, adj.


Brit. /{sm}klu{lm}f({shtubar})l/, U.S. /{sm}kluf({schwa})l/ [< CLUE n. + –FUL suffix, in sense 2 after CLUELESS adj.]

1. Full of clues; informative, revealing. rare.

1921 B. RUCK Sweet Stranger vi. 75, I went on reading aloud, quickly but distinctly, that pregnant, that possibly-so-clueful letter.

2. Well informed, knowledgeable. Cf. CLUELESS adj. b.

1943 Amer. Sociol. Rev. 8 521/2 The clueful inquiry into social ideologies and the sociology of knowledge. 1961 Times 18 Nov. 1/3 (advt.) Bachelor, thirties, presentable and clueful, seeks worthwhile position now. 2002 M. D. BAUER Building Secure Servers with Linux xi. 365 Maybe your experience is different from mine, but clueful human network engineers are rare enough; why would robotic ones be any less so?

In which I am a counter-example

In an essay about the rise of zombies in popular media, the author takes a pot shot at “brain dead” English classes, and uses me as a counter-example (someone not brain dead?). Peter Wood writes, for the National Association of Scholars:

Perhaps the central question for the National Association of Scholars is whether the proliferation of zombies is a genuine academic concern. Other sectors of American society seem to be accommodating rapidly to the influx. We now have zombie banks, zombie computers, zombie games, zombie protest songs, and zombie cocktails, (light rum, creme de almond, triple sec, orange juice, pineapple juice, and dark rum). We can expect, following the zombification of Pride and Prejudice, the emergence of a new genre of “revised” classics: The Naked and the Undead, Our Town Zombie, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back-Again!

Some might say the curriculum has already been zombified. By this we do not mean isolated courses on zombies such as English Professor Brendan Riley’s course, “Zombies in Popular Media”at Columbia College in Chicago. Rather, we refer to the walking corpse quality of English courses taught by professors who care more about “theory” than literature; programs of study that present key works of the humanities only to bury them; and a curriculum as whole that has all the coherence of zombies stumbling through the dark.

Random thoughts from the aether today

  • Reviewing the daily spam filter report, I see an email with the subject “Ready for your free rolex?” from “” Now come on. I think that’s a parody of spam.
  • I was looking at the design of my main site,, and wondering whether it needs a re-vamp. It’s fairly simple and I still like it, but it’s also the design I worked up in the summer of 2004 when I was starting at Columbia. Does a site need to be redesigned occasionally just because? Perhaps I will do so next summer to mark my progression (hopefully) from Assistant professor to Associate.
  • I spent about 30 minutes today cleaning up and locking down the old MediaWiki installations I rolled for my WR2 courses over the last couple years. A spam-bot had gotten hold of one and started editing it.
  • Is there a spam- or commercial- value to following someone on Twitter? I keep getting weird followers. And I know I’m not that witty.
  • I’m going to start a Brendan Riley group on Facebook for all the Brendan Rileys ala The Sweetest Sound.

Is it really that strange?

My zombie course got a mention in the “15 Strangest Courses” in America article at  Here’s what they say:

Here’s one I’d have to consider signing up for, the history of zombies in popular media. Lest you think it’s just about zombie movies, it should be emphasized that the course also covers the history of voodoo in Hait, [sic] and video games like Resident Evil as well as zombies in cinema.

Oddly, it seems like the prestige of this mention lies more in being a front-runner (this is the first post on the blog) than in being mentioned.


The next podcast from my Writing and Rhetoric 2 class.  In this one, I explain the idea of “convergence” as I understand its relationship to electracy, our coursework, and the Lawrence Weschler book we’re using as our guide.

Podcast below the break.

Continue reading Convergence

Do your homework

My Writing and Rhetoric 2: Online! students are working their way through Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. One of the readings was a chapter called “Helen Levitt: Ilium Off the Bowery,” in which Weschler writes:

…we learn that one of the methods by which she accomplished such uncanny capture was through the use of a winkelsucher, a right-angle viewfinder … attachment which “allowed the street photographer to sight along the camera body while standing sideways to his subject, who consequently fails to realize that he is the subject.” (33)

and I asked this question:

Consider the “right-angle viewfinder” mentioned in the second paragraph of “Helen Levitt.” What does it literally do for Levitt? What kind of photographs does it take? Now consider the winkelsucher as a metaphor. What would it mean to approach a research subject as though you were using a metaphorical “periscopic device?” How might we examine a research subject at a right angle?

In her response, one student wrote:

I think it’s important to approach research with a “periscopic device” or examine it at a “right-angle” because taking a step back and looking at the subjects (or research) from another angle we may find things that we ordinarily would not have discovered. This is crucial becuase uncovering more than just the black and white research would be looking at the actual world and looking for the aesthetic but we need to see the aesthetic world within the actual world.

Hells yeah.

Also, it occurs to me that winkelsucher is a great name for some sort of website or web community.  What might it be?

On finishing grading

Finish Line image by Karen Withak

I crossed the finish line, flags waving and emails sent. I’ll upload the grades on Friday, but all the grading is done. I generally enjoy writing comments and responding to student project, but I really dislike grading. As I teach more, I’ve wavered quite a bit in what I think about grading, but I tend to think it should just go. Gone.

Ken Bain’s What The Best College Teachers Do has a long section on grading. Bain suggests that grading at its best serves as a communication tool between teacher and student. He also explores some studies that consider grading often gets in the way of developing a perspective of learning among students.

…they have consistently found that most extrinsic motivators damage intrinsic motivation. That have also found that if they use “verbal reinforcement and positive feedback”–in other words, encouragement or praise–they can stimulate interest, or at least keep it from evaporating. (33)

If external motivation becomes the driving force behind the student’s desire to learn, the internal motivation wears away and then, when the student is no longer a student, the motivation isn’t there either. I know there’s a vast body of stuff written on this that I haven’t read yet, so I’ve still got some research to do. That said, here is one grading plan I’m considering using after I get tenure.

No grading at all. James Kincaid, author of Annoying the Victorians, apparently just gives everyone As regardless of what they do. I’m not sure if I’m willing to go this far, but perhaps another version of it would be like this:

“I will be giving you lots of feedback on your work in this class, but letter grades are not part of the evaluation mode. Thus, everyone who stays enrolled until the end of the semester gets a C automatically. Students who attend class regularly and turn in all the projects for the course earns an A automatically.”

The goal here would be to let me concentrate on giving comments and not grades. I would only keep track of whether projects were turned in or not. It puts the burden for motivation on our class, not on the grade. It also allows the students who literally don’t want to be there to just get the gentleperson’s C and never come back.

What grading methods do y’all use? Does anyone in my readership actively subvert the grading system? Do you worry about “grade inflation”? Should you?

Two down, one to go

Hour One to Go by Thomas23

I finished my ICW grading and emailed the students.  Only my New Media grading stands between me and the end of the semester.  And I’ll finish that tomorrow!

One down, two to go

One down, two to go

My ICW students received an email that included this line just moments ago:

As of this email, I have finished grading all the assignments for the class, and your final SCORE is online.

On Attendance

Bling My Grade by DavidDMuhr

The Columbia Chronicle had a commentary about the attendance policy on campus.  In part, they say:

Missing class is detrimental to a student’s understanding of course material, his grades on any quizzes or due assignments and their overall course performance. In effect, missing class is its own punishment and shouldn’t be augmented by the threat of automatic grade reduction and failure.

Undergraduates (especially paying undergraduates) deserve to be responsible for their own education. Missing class is unwise, but it’s not a choice for teachers and administrators to make.

My response, posted here in case it doesn’t get published:

I am writing in response to the April 21st editorial, “Bueller? Bueller?” The article suggests that attendance policies at Columbia are often confusing for students, and goes on to argue that there should not be attendance policies at all. I agree with the first premise and strongly disagree with the second.

Confusing attendance policies are a significant problem. The Faculty Handbook requires that instructors communicate their policies with students: “Attendance and punctuality standards must be made clear and included in every course syllabus that is distributed to your students at the beginning of each term.” Any student unclear about their course’s attendance policy should take up the issue with their instructor as soon as possible.

However, the article also erroneously suggested that attendance policies are unusual in college. A search of other college websites for class syllabi will show that attendance is almost always required. Like Columbia, most schools don’t have universal policies because attendance plays a different role in each course, and thus a college-wide rule would be counter-productive.

But teachers don’t require attendance out of habit. Most of us design our courses so that students do intellectual work during class meetings. We hold conversations, orchestrate group work, give lectures, and focus on collaborative production. Students who miss these meetings are not participating nor performing at the same level as those who attend. Attendance policies reflect that difference, and thus vary by course just as teaching styles do.

Grades serve to explain how well students meet learning objectives. When in-class work is essential to the course, a clear attendance policy is not only appropriate, it’s essential. Like requirements that students do homework or projects, attendance policies explain how students can meet these objectives. And like all coursework, students retain the right (and responsibility) to participate or not.


Jenny and I watched Chalk via Netflix’s “Watch It Now” feature. It’s a convincingly-made mockumentary about four or five teachers in a high school, one of whom is brand new and has no formal training as a teacher. It touches key nerves and, for the first bit especially, comes off as very real. The students in the film are amusing and their behavior rings true.

I especially enjoyed the third-year teacher who is “running” for teacher of the year. This trailer does convey some of the funnier moments of the film, but it makes it look like the one guy is the main focus of the film, when really it’s pretty evenly split between the four teachers.