ReaderWriterVille

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Reading Notes

I know, I can’t believe it either. It’s not a virus post! But as we talked about last post, the days are merging into weeks and I’m managing to read a bit, so let’s talk about that for a change.

I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, which I enjoyed immensely even though I kept seeing the movie actors instead of my own imagined characters. This was fine in some cases (Viggo as Aragorn, Ian McKellen as Gandalf) and not so fine in others (I’ve had enough Sean Astin as Sam to last me several trilogies, and ditto for Elijah Wood as Frodo). But that’s a small complaint. Finally I get to see why TheH always remembers and references Tom Bombadil and I can join him in lamenting Tom’s absence from the films. So far, I find the film’s changes to the books to be not horrible and even understandable, and I’m usually a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations. Overall I prefer the book characters to the movie characters; they’re less pretty, more complex, and in the case of Merry and Pippin, less ditzy-annoying. But I can understand the changes and they’re not nearly as bad as they could have been.

fellowship 2011 cover

I’ve also been struck by the extent to which the film tracks with the books scenes and language. There are so many verbatim sections of dialogue and Jackson and his team did an amazing job of recreating some of the physical settings. New Zealand feels (and is) much bigger than Tolkien’s world, but it’s like looking at New England mountains and valleys and then the Rockies; they’re different in scale but somehow still part of the same continent.

But what about the book, you’re probably asking? What about my actual read of the actual novel? It was great. Just what I needed. In fact, it was so much more satisfying than I expected it to be. Maybe that’s why it’s a classic and beloved by millions? Heh. But yeah, I was totally swept up into it. I really appreciated that even in this, the more adult story (compared to The Hobbit), the violence is present but the worst bits are played down or fully off-page. It makes me realize how much of the films were devoted to grisly scenes, which when you read the source material you can see were pretty unnecessary from a storytelling point of view. Tolkien’s approach is a reminder that graphic and explicit aren’t necessary to communicate emotional and intellectual material.

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LFH: I’m losing count of the days

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, and don’t ask me how many days it’s been since we went into isolation. 40? Something like that. We landed in STL on March 13th, came straight home and the great sequestering began. So that was 41 days ago. Tomorrow will complete six weeks. It feels much longer in some ways and shorter in others. Mostly longer, though.

Yesterday I taught my last two Zoom sessions. It was bittersweet. I’ll miss my students and I’ll miss the structure that teaching twice a week provided, but I won’t miss the exhaustion, stress dreams, and wakefulness in the middle of the night. I read that everyone is sleeping badly now and having bizarre dreams when they do sleep. There are reasons for this, but no remedies. But last night we both slept reasonably well, and I’m sure it’s because we aren’t mentally preparing for the next onslaught of Zoom sessions. The cognitive drain of Zoom is so much greater than face-to-face teaching, or any other kind of meeting, really.

On the happy side of Zoom, though, I had my first two Zoom Happy Hours. One was a replacement for our semi-annual conference dinners (one of the conferences would have taken place this past weekend) and the other was a Blast From the Past get-together with regular drinking buddies from my NYC days (only one of us still lives there now). It was terrific to catch up, even though in both cases the conversations had their depressing phases. Higher education institutions are not in good places now and things are only going to get worse. And we (the Zoom Happy Hour people) are the lucky ones. We’ll still have our jobs in four months.

My university furloughed 1300 people this week, mostly from the medical side, but the Arts & Sciences furloughs are coming. Budgets are being reworked. And so on. There is just so much uncertainty. It seems highly likely that we’ll be teaching at least part of the fall semester online, but no announcements have been made. The possibilities include starting online and finishing face to face, starting the semester later, and probably other options I haven’t heard about.

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LFH: Days 22-28

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.

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LFH: Days 18-21

Twice a week seems about right for these check-ins. Maybe I’ll even get to writing posts about books and travel again. A girl can dream. The week almost had a normal rhythm, with classes on Wednesday and a bunch of admin stuff on the other days, but at a pace which was closer to normal.

On Wednesday I got to talk about some of my favorite readings in both classes: Bill Buford’s study of English football hooligans in Among the Thugs and a couple of law review articles on Google Street View. Both classes went well, with no Zoom dropouts. I did most of the talking in the morning class but they felt OK, and my one-on-ones with my students later in the week reinforced my optimism. Obviously it’s not like teaching the usual way, and there are fewer students attending synchronously. But TheH, other colleagues, and I have all heard from students that they appreciate having the synchronous class times available. They prefer it to listening to recorded lectures and it structures their time. I can see that, since having to teach twice and week and hold office hours on other days forces a schedule on me that keeps me from frittering or stressing away the days.

I’ve been following the stories about privacy issues with Zoom and they make me more and more uncomfortable. The CEO is saying all the right things, but it’s clear that the program was not even remotely designed with an emphasis on security and privacy. A lot of the articles focus on Zoombombing, which is definitely a problem, but the Washington Post‘s discovery that it’s trivially easy to find and distribute the URLs of recorded video conferences that were intended to be private is at least as worrying. I’m doing what I can in my classes: sending invites and links to recorded sessions only through Canvas, using all the exclusion settings possible given our use-case, and having the sessions stored only on Zoom’s servers (although I can’t control downloaded copies, as far as I know). And I’ll delete all the cloud recordings as soon as the semester is over. But it’s still ridiculous that so many educational institutions jumped to use it without any real investigation of the possible problems. At this point I don’t have an alternative, but after this semester I hope there are changes, either to Zoom or to our use of it.

Speaking of which, the stay-at-home orders are widening across areas and causing more closures. The county closed a number of its parks because too many people were showing up and failing to observe social distancing rules. One of the most popular county parks was so full that they had to close access to the parking lots. Our biggest city park, Forest Park, has blocked off some of the roads to try and reduce traffic and also to allow bicyclists and joggers to use the roads, since the pathways get very busy on nice days.

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LFH: Days 14-17

I really fell behind on these posts. Although the days are starting to develop a rhythm, so each day doesn’t seem like a Whole New Thing anymore. I thought I’d be more excited when Day 14 finally arrived, but not really. We made it through the entire 14-day self-isolation period without developing any virus symptoms. Now we just hope that we can stay symptom-free.

After my great Linux Achievements on Thursday, Friday was Zoom-conference-free. It was lovely. I still had a ton of stuff to do but I got through the most pressing tasks in the morning and was able to get out and take a walk in the park in the afternoon. It wasn’t too busy so maintaining distance was easier than the last couple of times I was out and that made it less stressful. The weather improved as well and we’ve had sunshine and warmer days, and the trees are starting to flower and leaf. Every little bit helps.

I made up for my Zoom-free Friday by spending over four hours on video conferences on Saturday. This was the replacement system put in place for our scholarship weekend activities. Although it was tiring, talking to the scholarship candidates was as enjoyable and heartening as ever. They are so accomplished and mostly really sweet, and this batch felt even more like that. After four half-hour conversations with short breaks in between, we got an hour off for lunch and then convened as a group to make the decisions. All the finalists are already admitted and everyone gets at least a half-scholarship, so no one goes away empty-handed. We still took nearly an hour and half to rank the list, but that’s par for the course. That done, I shut down my computer and took a break. I should have gone out for a walk, but it was Saturday and nice and I knew the park would be packed, so I took a nap instead. 🙂

We watched another of the Maigret episodes in the evening and tried to relax. It’s hard, because the news just keeps coming. We here in STL are luckier but watching what’s happening on the coasts and other cities reminds us that we still have a ways to go.

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