Funny email from a student.

November 24, 2008

While at the anthropology meetings in San Francisco, I received this little missive:

Dear Professor Rottweiler,

How are you doing?  I hope your AAA meeting is going well.  I am E-mailing to inform you about my Annotated Bibliography topic.  So here it goes!  My topic will focus on magico religious aspect of Native American Culture and how it affects their daily lives.
Your Pal,
John P. Student
P.S.-Has anyone ever told you that you have great style?
I was amused and wrote back that his project was much too broad in scope….. and ignored the postscript.  Apparently, my efforts to remain well-groomed have not gone unnoticed.  Of course, I am sure that I am stylish only when compared to the slacks-wearing, slovenly plaid-shirt garbed senior faculty at Midwestern U.   How would you respond?  Any good emails from your students?
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Get. Out. Now.

November 13, 2008

My Facebook status currently reads, “Professor Rottweiler asked her students to leave if they had not done the reading, and all but 4 out of 17 walked out with an icy wind at the their backs.” After noting that only three in the class had downloaded the reading last night, I suspected that something like this might be in order for cultural anthropology class.  I posted my intention to calmly and reasonably ask people to leave if they had not done the readings in a Facebook status earlier today.  My intention in doing so was two-fold: a) to solicit feedback from friends who were teachers and b) to hold myself to it lest I chicken out in the misplaced desire to continue to be ‘likable.’  A few friends (including the fabulous bulldog!) noted they had done something similar in the class and it had worked well, so my resolve bolstered, I devised a plan for managing this with a certain aplomb, or reasonable facsimile thereof.

In the past I have wondered why students don’t read.  I had even cut the readings back significantly in request to this particular class’s whining and complaining.  It doesn’t bother me that they SOMETIMES don’t read or make it all the way through… it bothers me because it seems to be becoming habitual.  And when I wondered about the “mystery of the non-reading students,” many reminded me that it’s no mystery– it’s just about getting away with what you can get away with.  Since I am not a pop-quiz homework assigning busy work police teacher, my students have learned that they can coast through discussions without being prepared.  This has devolved in the last two weeks to a poor student presenter being virtually the only guaranteed reader of the text, with everyone else mooching off of this unfortunate soul’s labor.  So today I decided I had had enough.

I walked into class feeling shaky from the get-go.  I wrote two questions on the board and announced that there would be an open-note pop quiz.  The two questions were softballs if you had bothered to CRACK open the books and write a single thing down.  I gave them five minutes and then collected the quizzes.  Then I asked how many had done the readings and prepared for class.  A few hands went up.  I then announced that if you were unable to answer both questions with an open-note format, that you were unprepared for class.  Then, to my horror, the following words left my lips, “I am very disappointed that you are unprepared for class” (thanks, Mom).  “You are wasting my time, your time, and the time of the students who are prepared for today’s class.  If you are not prepared for class today, then I ask that you leave.  When you come back on Tuesday, you should be able to answer these two questions.”  They sat in stony silence staring at me so I just stared back.  Then chairs started to move and folks filed out.

I was left looking at four frightened faces.  I was sure, though my voice had been calm, that my face was bright red (I felt all hot and flushed!).  A friend commented that it was tough to have been one of those who left, but also tough to have been one of those who stayed.  I held class with the four students– we watched the end of a film and then discussed the readings.  I gave them a chance to talk about their paper projects.  Class wrapped up and I headed back to my office.

After class, I emailed the class telling them what I expected from them and how we could put this scene behind us… the email contained the conciliatory words, “I appreciate your honesty.”  I’ve received two apologies thus far, which is not the silence I anticipated.   I still feel shaky (from the belly on out) about what I’ve done, and I am curious as to whether it will a positive effect.  I will report back soon, but in the meantime, welcome your stories about instructor-student standoffs (from either perspective).  I prefer the one’s with happy endings, but may find your horror stories instructive as well.

[Politics hijacks my blog.]  I’ve been doing the psychological equivalent of holding my breath for the past four weeks.  My dreams teetered on the ability of Obamania to sweep the nation.  Would there be a Bradley effect?  An October surprise?  On Election Day, I watched blue creep across the electoral map and around 11 pm central time, Barack Obama was announced the decisive winner.  As I drove home, I heard voices whooping and celebrating, hands banging on pots and pans.

Six months back, I was doing the cynical thing.  Yes, I tend to vote Democrat, but I believe in election reform and think the two-party system blows.  During the primaries, I favored Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton because I am a sexist self-hating woman.  Well, no.  Actually, I favored Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton because I have been deeply disturbed by the Clintons’ centrist position since Bill Clinton’s first presidency.  To me, he was the first Democrat to run on electability, and the beginning of the watering down and disorienting of a solid Democratic Party platform.  In the primary pool, I liked Barack Obama, could have lived with John Edwards, and found myself longing for the days of Howard Dean, pre- the infamous yell that got him “kooked” out of the race.

In March or April, friends lent me the audiobook of Dreams of My Father.  I listened to it in its entirety during a long drive.  I will admit that before I started listening to it, I was fearful and skeptical.  I was convinced that what I would hear would be disappointing… hackneyed, uninspired and facile.  May be even politically self-serving.  After all, hadn’t Obama set his sights on the presidency as a kindergartener?  Instead, as I listened, I realized that I liked Obama’s voice and that the book seemed brutally honest and engaging.  Yes, there were a few passages that had the over-worked sacharrine tone to them, but what I had feared, that the more I heard from Barack Obama, the less I would like him, did not bear out.  It was the fastest 8-hour highway drive I’ve ever taken.

When the primaries were finally settled, I found myself going into that cynical place.  My mother’s voice stuck in my head, “This country will never elect a black man– they are too racist,” her justification for, once again, abstaining from voting.  In August, I started my tenure track job and moved from the east coast to the midwest.  Then, in September, I attended a friend’s wedding back east.  The wedding guests included many public interest lawyers.  We all piled into a motel together to watch the first McCain-Obama debate.  I listened to them discuss how many were donating gobs of time to the campaign.  They were sanguine without being cynical.  “If Obama loses,” they said, “it will be because of racism, plain and simple.  Now let’s talk about his ground game.”  Mr. Rottweiler and I talked about this strange and refreshing phenomena of being around individuals with such an outlook.  I think this is the first time that I acknowledged that cynicism is a route to absolve oneself of responsibility, at least in my case.

Back at Midwestern U., I became riveted by the election.  With growing consternation, I saw McCain-Palin signs sprout in dormroom windows.  They seemed to outnumber the Obama-Biden signs.  Lonely during the subsequent presidential and vice-presidential debates, I phoned a friend and we watched and quipped over the phone together.  As election day neared, the campus Republican group campaigned for McCain-Palin on the Upper Quad, and I seethed every time I walked by them.  A colleague told us not to tell our students to vote as we’d then have to go find other voters to off-set the effect.  (Rather than enjoin or forbid, I chose to  freely talk about the elections in my classes often as they are full of all kinds of pithy bipartisan examples that can be very effectively used in an anthropological context).   Department tensions sparked when another senior colleague, who votes Democrat, responded to a spate of Palin-related emails with the declaration that she “identified with Palin’s populist message,” and implied that those who disparaged her were elitists.  “Isn’t it interesting,” I responded, “getting to know one’s colleagues during an election year?” while making a note not to email said colleague any more, even if she had participated in some of the emailing.  Negative ads and robo-calls flooded the state, and my psychological breath-holding grew more tense, worried, and invested.

On top of this, I did not see Mr. Rottweiler for an entire month.  We’ve been married for 7 years, and we have never spent that much time apart since we first got together.  Never.  Mr. Rottweiler is still in grad school back in Virginia, and as Virginia was excitingly “in play” for the Dems this year, he decided to put his time into the campaign there.  I found myself going more exhausted and overwhelmed during the month of October (it is the cruelest month for faculty, according to Ms. Mentor: http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/1999/09/99092401c.htm) and had to cancel plans to fly east for a weekend.  While it was hard to be apart, I wagged my tail compulsively every time I thought of Mr. Rottweiler out there registering Virginia voters, canvassing, doing data entry (“data entry for change,” we liked to quip), and getting to know an impressive set of young people who were working for change in Virginia.  My mother called in mid-October and spoke excitedly about voting for Obama.

Mr. Rottweiler is in town spending a much needed weekend with me.  Obama is our president-elect, the economy is in dire straits, and there is much work to be done.  Mr. Rottweiler is full of praises for the campaign workers back in VA.  He was one of the two oldest people working in his particular office, and he speaks very admiringly of his colleagues there.  He is poised to see what else they are going to do since they are clearly not done yet.  A couple of weeks back, one of his fellow campaign workers took a permanent marker and wrote on her hand “Make history.”   History-making is a long term project, and the canvas of history is our flesh.  There is no time for the safety of cynicism in the days to come.