10 Things I Wish I Could Tell Parents of the College Students I Teach

 

  1. It’s doubtful your son or daughter is the smartest person I’ve ever taught. It’s possible, of course, but the odds aren’t good. It’s like the microscopic number of high school athletes that make it to the NBA, NFL, or the MLB. Sure, it could happen. Somebody wins the lottery every day, but don’t bet your mortgage or the next 30 years of student loan debt for your child on it.
  2. Stop texting your progeny during my class. Phones are forbidden in class. College students don’t need to multi-task all the time. It’s changing their brains. I’m not kidding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “I have to take this. It’s my mom.” Back off a little. Your son or daughter is dealing with lots of new stuff. Give him/her/them a chance to handle things themselves.
  3. The most important indicator of your child’s success in college isn’t how smart he is, what kind of high school she went to, or how well they did on the SAT or ACT. You know what the leading success indicator is? Class attendance. It’s the big kahuna. The best advice you can give them: Go. To. Class. “We aren’t doing anything in class today” is a lie. We are ALWAYS doing things in class. That’s literally what they pay us for. No online supplement will ever equal engagement in class. It’s electric.
  4. It’s not the end of the world if your student fails a class. In the scheme of things—like curing cancer, rounding up terrorists, saving for retirement, and eating your leafy greens—it’s not even a blip on the life timeline. In fact, an epic fail may be a defining moment for your student. We all learn much more from our failures than our successes. Learning what they are NOT good at it is every bit as important–maybe more important–than learning what they ARE good at.
  5. Not everyone belongs in college. I can’t believe I have to say this. It’s not a bad thing. We need all kinds of folks in our society. Everyone should have the opportunity for higher education if they want it, earn a spot, and have the brains and temperament for it, but college isn’t for everyone. Our diversity in talent, inclination, and disposition is one of our society’s strengths. Don’t send your student artist or musician to law school. The world does not need another angry lawyer. Don’t ask an aspiring teacher how she or he is going to support a family on a teacher’s salary. Ask society to pay teachers a living wage.
  6. Hard work will not necessarily result in high marks. Some students learn quickly, easily, and with little effort. Others study long hours, struggle with every new concept, and still make poor grades. Only a few students arrive on college campuses with great note-taking, researching, test preparation, and time management skills, but these are skills they can and should learn.
  7. Don’t project your own hopes and dreams—or lack of them—or your own regrets and disappointments on your offspring. It’s not your turn to go to college. It’s not YOU going through rush, trying out for a sports team, or running for student government office. Your son or daughter is not an extension of you.
  8. No matter what your student tells you, most professors want your child to do well. They hold regular office hours. Encourage your student to drop in, to ask questions, and to get involved intellectually in the life of the college.
  9. Colleges offer a myriad of free or low-cost speakers representing every interest and expertise on the planet. It’s a rich environment the likes of which your child may never encounter again. Tell them to go hear those speakers!
  10. Your son or daughter needs to know that your love and support are not conditional on how well they do in college, on the sports field, or in their chosen majors. Encourage them to explore new ideas, to find new interests, to make new friends, to try out interesting internships and employment opportunities, and to be brave in encounters outside their comfort zones. Give them room to imagine jobs and ways of life that you might not even know exist in the world today.
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Farewell to Sweet Tea?

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Somehow, some way . . . I have to find a way to give up sweet tea. You know why. We all do. I’m not going to recite the exhausting litany of sugar’s sins here. Plenty of other bloggers have piled on that subject. What a bore. Sugar is reviled like demons in the Bible, drivers who fail to stop for children in school crosswalks, and pension fund embezzlers. The truth is:  I’m not sure I can give it up. I’ve been off soft drinks for a year, and I don’t drink coffee. There is nothing left but water. Water tastes like nothing. Like licking Formica. A necessity for cleaning the toilet. Watering the lawn. Brushing one’s teeth. A glass of iced tea is how I start my day. It’s the libation of courage. I can face anything after imbibing—throw-up bugs, tax returns, 100-degree days, and flea infestations—if I am supported by those small bags of fragrant leaves, water, and a little sugar. Plus a little more sugar. And a smidge more. Sweet tea, full-gas, with caffeine to help me teach back-to-back writing classes and enough sugar to hold its own with any doughnut—this libation is the drink of my people. My touchstone. My cultural icon. Think of each cube of ice as a worry bead on a rosary. Sweetened iced tea is the consumable extended metaphor for good manners, intimate conversations, regional hospitality, and a sweet, fragrant beacon of hope that reassures me that I still live in a world that values civility in our interactions with one another. Marriages have been saved, children put back on the straight-and-narrow, indeed, wars have likely been averted over glasses of sweet tea with lemon and mint. It’s inexpensive. Easy to make. Timeless. Classless. Non-gender-specific. Humble. All God’s children love sweet tea.  I wrote an entire chapter about sweet tea in one of my books. I don’t just want sweet tea. I need it. I believe this to the depths of my being in a way that my mind can never be changed, the same way I know that wedding cake is the best cake in the world, that there is a merciful God, and a mullet is an unflattering haircut for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. Perhaps this is where I must make my stand. I’ll be the sweet tea maven. The woman who would not bow to science, reason, good sense, or cajolery. I’ve been called worse.

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To Celebrate the Downton Abbey movie release, a reprise: 10 Ways Southern Women Are Like Downton Abbey Women

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  1. Southern women and Downton Abbey women know that appearances are often more important than reality. I know plenty of Southern women who would help their friends move bodies in the middle of the night if some foreigner/Yankee had the bad manners to die in the wrong bed. You know the old saying: “Friends help one move. Best friends help one move bodies.”
  2. Southern women, like Downton women, believe that their roots are tied geographically to where their people were born. Southern women are always interested in tying your people to their people, and if they cannot, they are not overly concerned with knowing you. Genealogy is important. Have you ever met a Charlestonian? Enough said.
  3. Southern women and Downton Abbey women are always convinced they know best. They are bossy at a cellular level. It’s part of their God-given DNA, and you can examine generations of Southern women and their Downton counterparts to see evidence of this. I am bossy. My mother is bossy. My grandmother was bossy. We are here to help all those lucky enough to be born within our sphere of influence.
  4. Although the Great Britain of Downton Abbey fame seems to be dominated by men (Consider that pesky entailment of the estate, for example), underneath the surface, you will find a strong matriarchy at work—just like in the South. Ask any child under the age of 12, “Who is the boss of you?” The answer will be mama—not daddy.
  5. Southern women and Downton Abbey women are attractive. If they aren’t born that way, they know how to make themselves appear attractive, which is way more important. Even the sulky sister in Downton Abbey looks attractive after she gets a job. These women know the importance of costume changes, lipstick, a good sense of style, and fine jewelry. I think my fellow writer, Celia Rivenbark, says it best. When speaking of Southern women as compared to women from elsewhere, she says: “We’re just like you, only prettier.”
  6. Both Southern women and Downton Abbey women are able to do whatever has to be done: necessary murders, distasteful marriages, strange bedfellows, difficult politics, trying in-laws, eccentric relatives—whatever it takes to protect their homes and families.
  7. Southern women and Downton women know how to throw a party. Even if one is losing one’s house and fortune, for example, there is no reason not to go out in style with a big wedding. Use the good china; hire a great caterer, and wear a fabulous dress.
  8. Southern women and Downton women believe that good manners are a virtue in any endeavor. It is possible to face any calamity—cheating spouses, feuding sisters, possible jail time, financial ruin, even death—with grace, dignity, wit, and a really good hat.
  9. Southern women and Downton women are strong characters. They weather, endure, and get even more formidable with age. Who is your favorite Downton Abbey character? Violet, the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith, right?
  10. You don’t want to get on the bad side of Southern women or Downton Abbey women. They can hold a grudge for generations. It’s best to give them what they want the first time they ask. In the end, they’ll likely get what they want anyway, but you’ll get a gold star if you’re cooperative from the get-go. Believe me when I tell you: you want a gold star from a Southern woman.

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I Love New York!

I Love NY

I remember. To celebrate New York today, a few quotes from writers I love who got it just right:

“Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”
Nora Ephron

“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
― John Updike

“I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.”
― Truman Capote

“I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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Rocket Chef 2019!

Join me in Huntsville for this year’s Rocket Chef competition! I am one of 3 judges. We will have so much fun entertaining you and sampling the chefs’ offerings! It’s good to be on that stage, let me tell you–yum! Help us feed the hungry and support Merrimack Hall and all its programs.

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Summer Reading!

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What books are hiding in your summer stack-to-read or download? II’ve got a hodgepodge. Love this quote by Anne Bogel from I’d Rather Be Reading because it rings true to me:
“Because I’m a writer, certified book nerd, and all-around bookish enthusiast, people ask me this question all the time. . . .You’re looking for a book that reminds you why you read in the first place. One written well and that will feel like it’s written for you–one that will make think about things in a new way, or feels things you didn’t expect a book to make you feel, or see things in a new light. A book you don’t want to put down, whose characters you don’t want to tell good-bye. A book you will close feeling satisfied and grateful, thinking, Now, that was a good one.”
 
That’s the book writers like me want to write for all our readers. Just. One. Time.

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Writing Matters

Writing Matters

As a writing teacher, sometimes I think I deserve combat pay. I’d ask for it if I didn’t know my request would be tacked to a bulletin board somewhere in the Berte Humanities Building as entertainment for the faculty. Nobody throws money at the college English department, I assure you. There is nothing more daunting than stacks of essays lurking in my office, waiting to be marked. These days, of course, those papers are mostly email attachments cluttering my in-box, but you know what I mean.

Grading essays is nothing like grading math or science exams. There are no answer keys. Grading essays involves more than red-ink bleeding on a page. Often, the comments I write are far longer and more detailed than the sentence containing the error. I read every word in my students’ essays, sometimes multiple times. I often spend more time reading and responding to my students’ essays than they spent writing them in the first place. This makes me want to take to my bed with an ice pack on my forehead.

I can only grade two essays at a go. After that, I need a break. I often walk the halls of the college seeking human contact, switch out the laundry from the washer to the dryer if I’m at home, or read a rewarding chapter of a just-for-fun book. It’s important to stay fresh when grading, to give the last paper I mark the same grace I gave the first one I read. I don’t want to begin as a benevolent Glinda-the-good-witch grader and finish up like the Red Queen from Alice In Wonderland, shouting “Off with his or her head!” at the smallest grammatical sin.

Students often complain that writing grades are subjective. That isn’t true. Sure, professors are human. We enjoy reading some essays more than others. Just last semester, one of my students suggested, as a final thought in her conclusion, that since so many people die on the donor list waiting for organs, we should just take them from prisoners on death row. At first, I thought she was making a stab at Jonathan Swift-style satire, and I got a little excited about that, but, alas, she was serious, and she doubled-down in our conference.

I occasionally demonstrate my grading theory to students by giving them a stack of papers, which include essays I’ve graded in previous years with an A, B, C, D, and F (the grades and names have been deleted, of course). I ask them to read the essays and assign them a fair grade. They don’t have to mark errors or justify the grades in any way.

Usually, the entire class is in agreement about the results, and students are pleased when I show them that my grades align with theirs. They may not be able to articulate why one essay is better than another, but they know instinctively which is good, better, and best when they read them.

I teach that lesson in an attempt to ward off any future complaints that I “just don’t like the paper” or that students received a poor grade because I “don’t agree with the opinion.” I argue that I don’t “give” grades at all. In almost every way, students determine their own grades. Success in my class is entirely up to them. For many students, this is a novel idea.

Grading is intense work. After reading a batch of papers, my brain feels like Jell-O—a big glob of shivering, non-substantive goo just taking up space on a hospital tray. I usually feel a headache begin about halfway through a long grading session; it builds right behind my eyeballs and radiates into my hairline like a brain freeze from sucking down a milkshake too quickly.

I can’t tell you how depressing it is to find errors in student papers that I’ve gone over and over in class. There are only three explanations for that, and I don’t like any of them. 1. The student didn’t get it. 2. I didn’t teach it well. Or 3. The student doesn’t care enough to get it right.  All three of those options depress me.

Grading is often unrewarding. I see mistakes I’ve painstakingly addressed in a previous draft, a careless disregard for revision, and such poor word choice that the meaning of the syntax is obscured entirely. That’s fairly standard fare. It makes me want to throw things at my office door and grab random students walking by me on the quad and demand some answers.

There is no excuse for bad writing. Clear, concise, meaningful communication is what elevates us as a species. Every job in the world requires writing. Doctors, artists, bank tellers, and stay-at-home parents all have to write, and writers change the world, raise social awareness, and spread ideas to remote areas on the globe. Even writers like me who aren’t writing about war, famine, and politics provide a valuable service. We offer readers hours and hours of distraction from an often ugly world. To me, writing is a noble job. Its ugly cousin, grading, is the scullery maid. To make a living, writers like me do both.

Occasionally, I read an essay that is absolutely wonderful. It’s completely original in thought, context, or articulation, and it makes me laugh out loud with delight. When that happens, I am so proud of my student that I can’t wait to dish out compliments. Sometimes I stop what I’m doing and send a text or email. A perfect sentence is hard for professional writers to spit out, so it’s especially impressive when beginning writers do it well. I feel the urge to throw out candy like I’m riding with the krewe on a Mardi Gras float.

Mostly, however, I slog through hastily written, unexamined arguments that fail to live up to the student’s potential. I think that work is beneath me. As a teacher, my job is to inspire more than the mundane from my students.

When I succeed, I can honestly say I’ve made a difference in my student’s ability to communicate for the rest of his or her life. What could be more important than that? When they fail, either because of their inability to do the work or their unwillingness to put forth the effort, I feel depressed, frustrated, and weary to my bones.

I’m always searching for new ways to teach. Language, like life, is always evolving—for better or worse. Teachers like me have to be quick on our feet, adaptable, open to new ideas, and excited to be in the classroom with our students. I still feel that surge of adrenalin when I walk in a classroom, and I begin every class by saying: “I’m so glad to see you!” The day I can’t say that will be the day I quit teaching.

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