Saturday, June 30, 2007

Food, Friends, Freedom

I’m sneaking in a last moment post for June. Even as I being writing this, I’m unsure of what all I’m going to say. That means this will probably be a fairly scatterbrained post. Bear with me.

Melanie and I have had a lot of opportunities to invite people into our home lately. That’s been really nice. Both of us have always wanted to be those kinds of people who have a home full of love that people can feel good and safe and happy to be in. As simple a thing as it is, it means a lot to me to have had people here and to have felt positive about it. This morning, I had a couple of school friends and their spouses (spice? Uh oh, I hear a Mary Kate and Ashley song coming on – consider yourself blessed if you don’t get that inside joke) over for breakfast. These sweet people brought Edison a birthday gift! It’s a stuffed, sock-like frog. Eddie really likes it too, which is wonderful. The moment he pulled it out of the gift bag, he just embraced it all lovingly. It was really cool. And these kind people also brought Melanie a daisy, just for the heck of it. These are people I’ve only hung out with once outside of school time. Talk about generous.

Regarding the food, we had watermelon, cantaloupe, red grapes, strawberries, and bananas (the latter two largely intended to go on the waffles we made), waffles, sausage, and scrambled eggs. Melanie’s waffles are always a hit (I’ll write more about them later—seriously), and I was pleasantly surprised when people acted so enthusiastic about my eggs. The only thing I aim for when it comes to eggs, besides cooking them thoroughly, is to include lots of cheese and lots of seasoned salt. A sprinkle of regular salt and some black pepper is also thrown in. But that’s it. Still, it’s apparently a recipe for success. I know I like ‘em that way, but a little validation never hurt anyone (as anyone who’s had to pay full price for parking can tell you).

Tonight, Melanie and I went with another friend of ours to a vegan (re: vegetarian, but worse) restaurant. I was a bit scared of that, but I braved it. It was our friend’s choice. For the sake of giving you the proper perspective, I should note that this friend is a charismatic, black gentleman who was born the same year as my parents. In his own words, he’s a “long haired hippie.” Probably not what you’d picture if I just left it at saying he’s a friend, so I don’t want you to be misguided. Anyway, he chose the restaurant, which Melanie and I were not all that excited about in the first place, but then we come to find out it’s clear on the opposite side of Atlanta. Not too big of a deal, being that it’s a Saturday, but probably more adventurous than we’re accustomed to, what with li’l Eddie and all. But then as we’re pulling off the freeway, our friend cheerily announces that we’re going into “the black part of town.” Having grown up in Salt Lake City, I didn’t know what exactly that was supposed to mean. Was this just a casual observation, or was this comment to be regarded as a courtesy to me, a heads-up to get myself psychologically prepared for the rest of the evening? Am I going to feel completely out of place or something? Well, whether or not I really should have, I sort of did feel awkward at first. But it ended up being a very pleasant experience, with incredibly friendly people. Not that that’s even the point I wanted to make here. Still, it was part of the experience, so there you go. The real point is that Melanie and I weren’t too keen on the food. In some respects, it was better than I thought it might be. But whatever that main ingredient is in vegan food, I don’t think I care for it. It sure ain’t straight up vegetables, I’ll tell you that. There’s something else, a kind of … indescribable flavor that accompanied every dish. One or two bites of the stuff was tolerable, but my taste buds quickly lost their momentum. I can almost compare it to when something doesn’t have enough salt, but it wasn’t just the absence of something, it seemed to be a bona fide presence of not-so-goodness. Actually, the soy ice cream, which our friend made us get before we ate dinner, was quite tasty. That was the only thing I didn’t mind eating more than a few bites of. Aside from knowing I never want to go to a vegan restaurant again, I did gain one thing from this experience: I can now say I’ve had tofu. BBQ tofu, in fact. That’s something. I guess.

The final thing I’ll make mention of is that Monday is the midterm for the summer class I’m teaching. Because we’re all a bunch of graduate students teaching for our first time, the department chair is providing all of our class materials for us. That’s both good and bad. Good for preparation time, bad for having any control over how your class is run. I can understand not giving us full control at this point, but sometimes it sucks. Sometimes I don’t fully agree with the way something is phrased on a quiz or on the homework, and yet I essentially have to defend it when a student asks me about it. The point is, I was ecstatic when the department chair sent us a copy of the midterm. (Again, we didn’t write these ourselves.) Some of the test questions I’ve seen this guy use in the past have been pretty hard, I think. This time around, they’re fairly straightforward. I’m not only grateful for myself, since there aren’t any questions I feel aren’t fair and yet will have to defend, I’m also grateful for my students, whom I do sincerely hope to see succeed.

That’s what’s been going on in my neck of the woods. Because Monday is the midterm and Wednesday is Independence Day, I don’t have to prepare any teaching for this week. Yippee! I’m hoping it will be a rather joyous seven days. I certainly know I’ll be appreciating my freedom on July 4th, so if I don’t talk to you before then, I hope you’ll be enjoying yours as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Teaching: Week Two

Yesterday was my best day of teaching yet. I was worried when I got through the material that was supposed to last about an hour in something like 45 minutes. But, much to my surprise, we almost ran out of time during the second half of class. That’s great. I don’t know if it will always work out quite that well. There was a lot if interaction with the students, which I hope made it all the more interesting for them just as it did for me. Perhaps that is the mark of a great teacher, to always be able to make your classes work out that way, with lots of interesting discussion. I feel like a lot of what I have to teach isn’t conducive to that kind of interactive dynamic, but perhaps that’s my own shortcomings. Or, to be more kind to myself, perhaps that is just part of being new to it all.

Anyway, I have yet to successfully get the projector screen to retract after class. But I’ve learned to stop trying too hard, just so I don’t end up running the screen halfway across the room and then leaving it as a giant tarp covering all the desks and chairs. And yes, the fact that I’m using the projector screen means I have continued on with PowerPoint presentations. In response to my previous post, some people expressed their dislike for PowerPoint. I hope I escape the criticisms to which they give voice, because I do try to say and do more than provide subtitles (supertitles? Midtitles, really…) for my lectures. And I think the illustrative benefits of PowerPoint are quite strong, if utilized correctly. For example, I am able to highlight different parts of an argumentative speech in different colors, so as to point out the distinctions students will ultimately need to make on their own. That’s not something it would be very convenient to do on the spot, on the whiteboard. And, quite frankly, even if I did write up a whole paragraph on the whiteboard just to have the students analyze it while I underlined certain sentences with different colored dry erase markers, how boring would that be? Technology is where it’s at! (Although, I personally find Vanna White’s role on Wheel of Fortune a lot more meaningless now that she just touches a screen rather than physically turning letters around. So I guess technology isn’t always good.)

I did have a funny experience with my most recent class. We were discussing language, how it changes over time and eventually becomes obsolete. As an example of language over the years, I used the sentence “This movie is bodacious!” Some student asked what that meant, which kind of surprised me. I mean, I know it’s not something a teenager of today would realistically or seriously say, but I thought people would at least have heard of it somewhere. So I asked my class how many people had never heard the word “bodacious” before. There were quite a few hands that went into the air. I couldn’t get over that. It’s one thing for students not to know some of the TV shows or musical groups I used to enjoy as a kid, but to have an actual word be completely unfamiliar to them was something else. To feel that detached from the younger generation is … well, not so gnarly.

P.S. For those who know what fry sauce is, I also had the pleasure of grossing some students out by explaining what it is. I think they were genuinely disgusted, even before I described its color as “vomit orange.” Also funny to me, I didn’t outright explain that fry sauce is largely intended to be used as a dipping sauce for French fries, and finally a student asked what fry sauce was for. Man, the things you take for granted…

Friday, June 15, 2007

On With the Show

I taught my first two classes this week. Things went pretty well, I think. Once things got under way, I felt fairly comfortable. Oddly enough, the second day of teaching felt more awkward than the first. Perhaps because I had to do more actual teaching—not so much introductory stuff. Actually, I take that back. The first half of the second day felt more awkward than the first day. As for the second half of the second day, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, I experimented with a PowerPoint presentation at the end of my class, and it made all the difference in the world. Instead of getting the random, mumbled, and unintelligible answers I was getting as a response to most of my questions, the students seemed to perk up, pay attention, and participate avidly. I was quite amazed at the difference, actually. And I think I felt a bit more at ease, too. Instead of having one sheet of lecture notes for the whole entire class period, I could just glance at the screen and see exactly what I wanted to talk about right that minute. Very cool.

So, here’s the problem. Most projects that I undertake tend to become quite laborious in my hands. I think I have perfectionist tendencies even if perfection isn’t always my target. In short, I obsess over and devote too much time to projects, but I don’t necessarily get the payoff. Not the best combo, but oh well. To digress, I probably invested an insane amount of time into the little slideshow that I did present. Because of the overwhelmingly positive response I received, and because I too felt empowered by my use of technology, I now feel like I should do a slideshow for every class. And not just incorporate a slideshow into class, but basically have the entire class taught parallel with the slideshow. One of the best classes I had as an undergrad utilized PowerPoint every single class for the whole class period, and I loved it. It is engaging. I learned a lot. If my students like it just as much as I did, I feel I should return the favor and give them what they want. It just means I might spend even more time prepping for class than I ever expected. I think it will pay off when I’m actually teaching, but it might prove rather overwhelming outside of class time.

I told the students I was no PowerPoint expert, which is quite true. I just fumbled along figuring out how to use the program as I went. It’s surprising what you can learn by doing this. The presentation I made for Monday is fancy shmancy compared to last week’s. We’re talking moving graphics, pictures, everything. Maybe it’s a bad idea to get this creative right off the bat. Once you’ve given people a reason to have high expectations of you, you’re pretty much stuck keeping up to them.

One thing will keep me from seeming too professional, however. Those stupid pull-down screens upon which the slideshow is to be presented. I don’t have a problem with window blinds, so I don’t know why these things have to be so drastically complicated. When Melanie still taught Kindergarten, I got her world map stuck in the down position and couldn’t get it to ravel back up. Eventually, they had to replace it. After my Wednesday class, I wasn’t able to ravel the screen back up either. The directions tell you to pull it all the way out, hesitate, and then slowly release it. Well, trying to pull it all the way out, I ended up with it dragging across the floor. It never went back up, but I didn’t dare keep trying to pull it “all the way out” as the directions so kindly recommended. Finally, I just had to leave it, like a giant curtain that was several inches too long. I’ll find out Monday if the next teacher was able to fix it. But my question is, do I try using the screen again and just hope I’ll eventually know how to get it to go back up? Or do I just make us watch the slideshow on the whiteboard? I’ll let you know what happens, but feel free to cast your vote. Or your advice, if you know some trick of the trade that will prevent me from ending up in that situation again.

Until next time…

Sunday, June 10, 2007

They Call Me Mister K.

In less than 24 hours, I will have taught my first official class. It’s a crazy thought, and I have mixed feelings about it, including mixed feelings about my mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am nervous. This is for-real teaching. It’s not the review sessions I had to lead during the second half of last semester. I’ll be the teacher, the whole teacher, and nothing but the teacher. That’s bizarre. On the other hand, I don’t feel as nervous as I’d expect. The scariest thing for me is how to use the class time well. I’m supposed to be teaching for almost two full hours per class meeting, which is well beyond the 45-minutes that my review sessions typically lasted. And my review sessions sometimes felt like I ran out of things to say. So it’s going to be an exercise in time management, and that’s honestly my biggest fear at the moment.

So what are my mixed feelings about my mixed feelings? Well, in part I’m incredibly glad to feel as casual about this teaching gig as I do. I think the fact that I’m teaching summer semester makes a huge difference. In the fall, I’ll teach two, maybe even three classes, and it will be a full-on, normal academic situation. That, I think, will feel much more intimidating and weird. As far as summer goes, however, things always feel more laid back. Sure, the class meetings will last longer, but the summer semester itself will last only seven weeks. Those seven weeks will probably pass as quickly as prune juice through a geriatric, and that’s a really soothing thought—even if not such a soothing image.

The other part of my mixed feelings about my mixed feelings is that I partially think I should feel more panicked. Actually, writing this post is helping me feel more appropriately anxious. Since I started writing, my anxiety level has quintupled, give or take an –uple. I’m mainly worried that I’ll be panicking once class begins. I’m not sure, though. Sometimes I’m an enigma even to myself. In a lot of respects, I’m pretty good at handling things as they come. When push comes to shove, I generally feel like I’m able to step up to the plate, just because I have to. Tomorrow, I’ll have to act like the calm, professional teacher because I won’t have any other choice! Oddly enough, it’s the inescapability of the situation that might ultimately save me. At the same time, I can’t help worrying that I’ll feel like running home crying once I step through those classroom doors. Mind you, I’m not scared of teaching at this precise moment, I’m just scared that I will feel scared. Next to my fear of Bananas in Pajamas, that’s typically the kind of fear I experience—the fear of fear. FDR knew what he was talking about, folks.

Because I’m a first-time instructor, the philosophy department at my school is going to be spoon feeding me a lot of the material for my lectures. That means my preparation time will be kept to a minimum, which is good. My grading responsibilities might also be relatively light. Class size is limited to 35 students, and most of my fellow grad student instructors have already reached that cap. I’m still sitting pretty at just 22 students. That could change by class time tomorrow, of course, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m still planning to accomplish a great deal during the summer, and I’m already worried—genuinely worried, not just worried about being worried—that I’ve lost too much time as it is. One thing I do hope to maintain is my recent resurgence in blogging. As an instructor, I’ll be obligated to hold three office hours per week, just as I did last semester as a GTA. This means I’ll probably be sitting in front of a computer bored for at least three hours per week. Hopefully that’ll guarantee I write something on a weekly basis. Regardless, I’ll try to write about my first experiences as a bona fide instructor by the end of this week. Either that, or I’ll post the traumatic but captivating tale of me soiling myself in front of twenty-two 18-year-olds. It all depends on whether or not any actual teaching takes place. We’ll see.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Am I Overfeeding My Baby?

It's been a while since I've written about Li'l Eddie K. My boy continues to grow, and is currently going through the button-discovery stage. This means that, if I'm not careful, I could be in the middle of writing a post and have my computer restarted. Or, I could be in the middle of Take Home Chef and have the surge protector that powers the TV suddenly turned off. I guess there's some validity to the whole "childproofing your house" theory after all.

In other news, Edison has long been eating solid foods now. On the plus side, it's cute to see him diggin' on a variety of foods. On the downside, he's often enraged at his parents' audacity to deny him the yummy culinary concoctions that line their dinner plates. It doesn't matter if he's given some of the exact some food items, it only matters that it's not the food specifically from Mom and Dad's plates. And this is where I fear we may be indulging our Edison a bit too much. The last time I posted a picture or video of my sweet little boy, he looked something like this:

A slender young Edison traverses the living room floor in February 2007

Now that he's a full-on solid-food connoisseur, he's looking a bit more like this:

The same child, just three-and-a-half months later

Should I be concerned???