LFH: Days 22-28

by Sunita

Another work week, another set of fires to put out. But I think they are mostly quashed and just smoldering at this point. It’s better to have something to do than the reverse, though. The College fielded a survey of the undergraduates and it reinforced my anecdata that they like having synchronous classes to show up to. It structures their days and gives them a little bit of near-normalcy. Unfortunately, most of their professors seem to have landed on the same approach to moving online, which is to give them more written work. And we thought we were being so original!

I went into Canvas, a course organization platform I do not like at all but which is now my most visited site, and checked to see if any of my students had disappeared. But all of them are at least checking the material, so that was a relief. Not everyone is “engaging” at the same rate, but I don’t think anyone is so far behind they can’t catch up. I’ll know better in a couple of days after I go through all of the students’ materials one by one and see where they are. I should have done this a week ago but my “spare” work time was taken up with all the other admin. Now that is mostly wrapped up and I can put some extra time into course maintenance.

I decreased the effort level needed for the final assignment of the class. Usually the students do a group project followed by a short paper. The group project went out the window as soon as we were back from break, and I replaced that and the short paper with a research paper or take-home exam. But after seeing the results of the survey and hearing anecdotally from my students that they were feeling overburdened by the overall changes to their classes, I revised yet again. They can write shorter papers with less research (plenty of thinking but not as much digging for material) or there is a second option where they have to write short reviews and reflections on each of the assigned readings. They had to do some of the latter anyway, so this involves doing it for all of the readings, not just some. I also left the take-home exam option because some students want that.

I wish there was more I could do. I want them to come out of the class knowing the material and having expertise in the subjects, but the usual assessment techniques seem unhelpful in this environment. I know they’re showing up because I can see what they’re doing. Some of my students have family members with the virus. Some have underlying conditions which put them in the risk category. Some are in hotspots and can’t go out and don’t have congenial workspaces at home. Some are cooped up with a bunch of family members. And yet they are there, reading the material and doing the worksheets and coming to the Zoom classes.

It’s not only the students who can have unreliable internet; a couple of my colleagues do too. I was a bit surprised by that, but I guess if you don’t have reasons to spend a lot of time online at home, you don’t upgrade. We have always bought the fastest residential internet we can because of working from home and also working simultaneously. AT&T rewired our neighborhood for fiber last fall and thank goodness, because TheH and I both have 10am classes so we’re videoconferencing simultaneously twice a week, and I frequently have meetings during his other class. So far we haven’t had any problems, and there are only four to go, so fingers crossed it stays reliable. We’ve had fleeting drops of service during the day at times, but nothing that lasts very long.

I did get my book chapter revised and submitted, so that’s off my desk at least. I have another paper, coauthored this time, that needs to be finalized for submission. We have no idea what the review timeline is going to be like; are people more or less likely to be reviewing these days? We have a different paper under review that’s been out for a while, and I know the editor usually has a very efficient system, but who knows right now.

TheH and I watched another couple of Picard and TNG Star Trek episodes and then took a break from the TV. We’re still tuning into the news every night, and on some days that seems more than enough of the box. One show that has caught my attention is a new-to-the-US TV series from the UK set in World War II called World on Fire. It has Sean Bean as a pacifist working-class northerner and Lesley Manville as an class-conscious mother, which is pretty much all I need to know about it to watch. We missed the premiere on Sunday but we can catch up via the PBS streaming app.

I read some books! Well, to be more precise I read all of one book and parts of two others. I picked up a 2016 short story collection called Dog Run Moon by an unknown-to-me author named Callan Wink. He has just published a novel which received a bad review in the NYT — bad both in being negative and being a bad example of a review. There was some Twitter chatter about it and it turns out Wink has been published several times in the New Yorker. His stories are set in the American West and comparisons include Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas McGuane. I like contemporary American Western lit, and the review of the novel was really annoying, so I borrowed the story collection from Overdrive and it’s fantastic. I’m crap at explaining what I like about short stories, because I feel very ignorant about the form even though I have read a lot of them. My main gripe with them is when they feel too self-conscious or the author seems to be directing the reader, and they too often end with a dramatic twist. Wink’s stories feel less forced and worked-over as I read them, and when there are twists they aren’t presented with big flourishes. They’re very intermountain-west in their characters and affect, but set in today’s context, not nostalgic for the past. I haven’t read the one everyone talks about, the one with the cat-killing, yet, and there is some violence (human and animal) in the stories I’ve read, but I’m finding them extremely rewarding. I’m spacing them out, one every night or two.

I completed a different book much more quickly: the first of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole/Joe Pike detective series. These are very well known bestsellers and there are lots of them, but I started at the beginning. Crais cut his writing teeth in TV detective dramas and it shows (not in a bad way). There is a ton of LA detail and Elvis and Joe are interesting characters. It’s a bit of Raymond Chandler meets Robert Parker, which is fine when it’s done well. The women are too Chandler-ish for my taste, and there is a lot of violence, especially as the story builds to its climax, but it made for good timepass and I read it in two or three days, which is amazing given how little I’ve been reading.

Finally, I picked up a book I was halfway through and then set aside back in the winter: Javier Cercas’s latest, Lord of All the Dead. It’s a nonfiction novel whose focus is on Cercas’s investigation of the battle death of his mother’s uncle, but it turns into a larger exploration of his extended family’s Fascist and Falangist allegiances during the Spanish Civil War. It makes an interesting kind of companion work to his most famous book, Soldiers of Salamis, but from the Franco-supporting side. It’s beautifully written, as always, and open and generous in its exploration of the different sides’ positions on either side of the divide. I’m not entirely sure why I was having trouble reading it back in January, but when I picked it up this week it just clicked and I read several chapters.

Spring has really sprung, at last. Our flowering tree is heavy with pink petals and the neighborhood is full of a variety of similar types. I’m making myself get out and take walks even though I find them somewhat stressful. We have our masks and gloves and we’re supposed to wear them now when we go into stores. I put mine on whenever I leave my neighborhood and am around people. The grocery stores have asked that families limit themselves to one shopper per visit unless they have circumstances that make that impossible (single parents without childcare, people helping the elderly or disabled, etc.). And the parks are closing more of their streets to cars if they’re open at all. Missouri schools are done for the year. Our hospitals are confident they can manage whatever peak capacity brings, and we’re flattening the curve here somewhat, but we’re not out of the woods yet by any means.