Shooting Fish in a Barrel–And Still Missing

The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on billionaire Peter Theil’s alternative-to-college fellowship now that it’s been up and running several years. Essentially, the program selects twenty students at the top universities and gives them each $100,000 in start-up funds to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs. Apparently Theil’s explanation for the very real challenges facing higher ed is not that slashed state and federal budgets are responsible for astronomical tuition rates that make students and families second-guess the value of college, but because college is depriving students of the benefits of entrepreneurship.

I suggest Theil take a basic college writing course to learn something about making evidence-based arguments, because I know that is simply not the case. It turns out that the results of the experiment are less than stellar. Of the nine original participants who agreed to talk, few have much to show for their $100,000 venture. Some have gone back to college; most have scrapped their original ideas.

Now I certainly don’t begrudge their failures–that’s just life and happens to all of us. However, it does say something about Theil’s anti-college position–that is shared by many pundits–when you can take some of the most privileged young people in the world, give them $100,000 to make something incredible, and get only mediocre results at best. This doesn’t mean that college is perfect or the path for everyone. But it does show that a college education is not necessarily an impediment in the way that Theil has framed it. Nor does it show that entrepreneurship is some kind of panacea for the current economy with its flat wages and uncertain job market.

Teaching Notes

Just dropping by to note a new approach to my first day of first-year composition this semester. (One of these days I’ll set up a proper professional blog; in the meanwhile, here goes.)

In the past I’ve done my best to engage students on the first day of class with a little visual analysis, using that as a “teaser” for all the super-cool things we’ll be doing–analyzing texts, learning the basics of academic research, composing thesis statements, and everything else that excites me far more than it (often) does them.

This winter I participated in a discussion group that read the book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. From those discussions (and others), I took away the idea that instead of trying to “sell” students on the awesomeness of critical thinking on the first day of class, I should instead emphasize what this class can do for them by demonstrating its relationship to future writing courses they will take. Framing the course this way challenges the typical compartmentalized expectation that many students bring to college where they assume courses and subjects have very little to do with each other.

So here’s what I did. First, I asked students to write down the letter grade they expected to earn in this course. Then I asked them what skills they would need to use in order to earn that grade. The answers ranged from “organization/time management” to “spell check.”

Next, I handed them a 3 1/2 page research paper assignment from a colleague’s advanced gen ed course. I asked them to read it, and then work in small groups to list the skills they would need to complete the assignment.

Here the lists were a bit more detailed. They noticed the need for valid sources (10!), an annotated bibliography (whatever that is), and background information (lectures, class discussions) to name a few.

I affirmed the importance of all their lists, and then showed them a few more such as analyzing a text (and what exactly does analyze mean?), comparatively analyzing two texts, considering multiple interpretations, finding and evaluating sources, using a specific citation style, and developing an evidence-based argument. All these items are things we will be learning this semester.

I promised the students that every assignment, every informal writing exercise that we will do in this class is designed to equip them for the much more challenging assignments they will encounter in future courses.

Finally, we wrapped up the session with short literacy narratives that will serve as both diagnostic essays and way for me to learn more about each student and what each person is bringing to the course.

In the past, I’ve emphasized the connection between the course content and the broader world; this time I’m emphasizing the connections between the course and students’ future academic success. I’m demonstrating for them that curriculum design is not a randomized process, but that the courses they are taking are strategically networked with other courses across the college. Time will tell, but I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that they’ll get it.

Barrett at 14 months

[Self-flagellation for failure to post more often.]

Barrett is now 14 months old. He jabbers a lot–more than we remember Liberty doing. Especially when he wakes up. Sometimes when he’s frustrated and the jabbering totally sounds like swearing in baby-talk. He sleeps through the night on occasion, but is often up around 12-1 AM for a bottle and then again at 5:30 AM. Nothing fires him up like food delayed, although sometimes he lays there awhile talking softly to himself (again with the comparisons, something Liberty never did). I usually set him on the toilet first thing to avoid cleaning a dirty diaper. He puts up with it because it involves snuggles with me and looking at a board book.

I put him on the bathroom scales the other morning and he was 28 lbs. He’s been walking for about two weeks, so he still has lots of gushy baby fat on him.

His coordination is pretty impressive. For a new walker with a chunky body, he has a great sense of balance when he switches between squatting and standing. He knows how to hold and use a crayon–gets so excited when he sees crayons and coloring books laying out. The other morning he took an orange crayon to the kitchen floor and then tried to clean it off with a tissue. This morning I found him messing around in a kitchen cupboard. He rearranged the items to get his hands on the pitcher and then went through the motions of pouring from the pitcher into a small jar. Then he set the pitcher down and pretended to drink from the small jar. My heart melted a little to see him transition from merely modeling behavior to imaginative dramatic play!

It’s as though with walking opened the developmental flood-gates. As of the past few mornings he has finally responded to all my months of modeling the baby-sign for “more.” (From birth he shrieked when he was hungry, screamed when breastfeeding wasn’t fast enough, and finally downgraded to a whiny yell when he needs more scrambled eggs in the morning. Twice this morning, he signaled “more” before yelling. A huge breakthrough!)

Another developmental change is that he has a reduced tolerance for sharing his dad or me with anyone. He pushes Liberty away when she comes to either of us for snuggles (actually, this usually follows immediately after he has enthusiastically greeted her with smiles and hugs). This first became evident a few weeks ago when we were grocery shopping at Hy-Vee. Barrett was sitting in the cart when Liberty asked to sit next to him. I helped her up into the double-seated cart and he instantly protested, elbowing her to move away. It was the first sign of sibling rivalry between the two of them; I sadly realized that despite my high parenting ideals, my children won’t entirely escape it after all.

I’ve noticed in the past week or so that he’s now more interested in than frightened by dogs and trucks. Someone at daycare taught him to blow kisses which is what he does now when he thinks it’s time to leave the house in the morning. He likes to go so much that keeping him in the house on the weekends is often a recipe for a disastrous “witching hour” in the evenings.

Newborn Barrett and Squash

Newborn Barrett and Squash.

13-month-old Barrett and Squash.

13-month-old Barrett and Squash.

What amazes me most about the development of Liberty and Barrett is how much they stay the same despite their developmental changes. Somehow Barrett still hangs on to that stoic facade that slips away in moments of impatience just as he did as a newborn. In fact, the things he loves most–snuggles and food–appear to give him no joy in the moment. He just gets down to them as things that must be done; fun can come later. Of course, he laughs a lot too. Especially when we’re playing peek-a-boo or he’s nipping at my arm.

Sleepy-Time Struggles

And the musical beds continue. Liberty can’t go to sleep by herself, and it’s becoming harder and harder for her to stay in her own bed when she does go to sleep. The simplest solution would be to squeeze a king-sized bed in our room, but that’s not going to happen.

I was thinking about giving her melatonin at night, but when Dr. Google told me about the possible side effects, I nixed that. Instead I read about the importance of routines–bath, story, bed, etc. Our schedules make routines like that so incredibly difficult, but how can we be good parents if we can’t manage an evening routine for our child?

So I explained to Liberty yesterday that I read that what helps kids go to sleep at night is no TV in the evenings. Instead, we take a bath, get ready for bed, and then play a game or read a book. She wasn’t thrilled about the no TV part (watching a few minutes of HGTV with me in the evenings has become something of a ritual with us), but was game for the rest of it.

Tonight Derrick took the kids to church with him for choir practice while I worked on my diss for a few hours. We got home around 9 pm, and I hustled Liberty into her pajamas. Then while I was feeding Barrett, she asked for a game. When I said it was too late, she asked, “But didn’t the book say that playing games helps children go to sleep?”

Busted.

So we used the animals from her Barnyard Uno game as buttons to act out Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons. Then as she was protesting bedtime (“A story! A story!”), I told her to ask her Dad to tell her a story while she was going to sleep.

Now my brain function is steadily deteriorating. It’s time for sleep.

Oh, did I mention that our furnace is out? This morning the indoor temp was 61 degrees; the pilot light was out and won’t stay lit when Derrick relights it. We’re waiting to hear back from the landlord.

In other cheerful news, Barrett’s goopy eyes aren’t getting better (glued shut when he woke up this morning–so distressing for the little guy!) so I made a Dr. appt. for him Friday afternoon. Also I have less than 24 hours to make this house presentable for our guests who are coming for Student Welcome day.

Sleep, spring break and warmer weather can’t come soon enough!

4 Years; 7 Months

On February 25th Barrett turned 7 months old; the next day Liberty turned 4. Liberty’s birthday was also a snow day, so she got to stay home, eat pancakes, and watch TV–exactly the way she’d like to spend every morning. On Saturday we had her party here at our house–10 kids and 9 adults. The requested theme was “Strawshorcake.” I wanted to make a doll cake, but Derrick wisely talked me out of it so we ordered one from Hy-Vee instead. Last year we learned that the kids were more interested in free play than in planned activities so this time we ate cake first and opened presents, then Derrick and some of the other adults took the kids out to play in the snow. When they came back in we had hot chocolate and opened the pinata.

I felt terrible sugaring the kids up like we did, but when you’re trying to do a party on the cheap…

Last night we were playing musical beds again. First Liberty crawled in with us, and then when Barrett woke up hungry around 5:15 I settled into Liberty’s bed with him. A short while later Liberty crawled in with me, and I could feel immediately that she was running a fever. Thankfully it was just 100 F, but high enough to stay home and watch Strawshorcake videos on Youtube all morning.

As if the day wasn’t special enough already, I then learned that George Justice and Devoney Looser are leaving MU to take on new jobs at Arizona State University. As happy as I want to be for them, I’m still processing this one.

This afternoon I realized the Strawshorcake videos on Youtube had suddenly become Barbie videos. When Liberty requested the one with Barbie in a wedding veil and white underwear, I pointed out to her that we don’t take pictures of ourselves in our underwear and put them on the internet, so we don’t watch pictures like that of others. We’ll see how long she’ll go with that.

Later after we had read a chapter from Little House in the Big Woods, I suggested that she watch the BBC documentary Amish: A Secret Life. She’s watched it before and was fascinated with the little kids in it. She provided a running commentary:

“They have no ‘lectricity…like Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie…and no TV!”

“They have God in their life.”
Me: “What does that mean?”
“I think they pray.”

“They’re barefeet! The children are barefeet. [pause to think] It’s the summer there!”

“They’re at Target. They’re at Target!”

“They put sugar in their yogurt. Isn’t that too bad?” [A few days ago I explained to her that I don’t like to buy yogurt at the store because it has so much added sugar.]

“I jus’ don’t like the song, but I do like it, but I don’t like it.” [Referring to a haunting rendition of Salve Regina (a Catholic anthem) set to Pachelbel’s Canon which ironically is the soundtrack to the Sunday morning scene of Anabaptist worshipers gathering.]

I wonder how David and Miriam, the young Old Order Amish couple featured in the film, are doing. A sweet family facing such tough decisions!

Barrett - 7 months

Barrett – 7 months

Sick and Snow 2.0

Little did I know last time I posted that we were heading right back into a relapse or round 2 of sickness–this time with a stomach/intestinal twist to it. This time around Derrick and Liberty were hit hardest, and Barrett and I fared better.

In the aftermath of all that, life felt like riding a runaway train–all you could do was hang on and hope it didn’t jump the rails.

Last week, Derrick and the kids and I packed up and went to the Networked Humanities conference in Lexington, KY where I presented a paper. We stayed with a dear friend A. who sadly had to leave the day after we arrived. She kindly let us stay at her house while she was gone. It was a good trip in spite of a lost (and then refound) key, my unexpected 2.2 mile walk to bring the extra key, and cold, windy weather. I got to meet and chat with people who have been influential in my work, and learned about other scholarship that sounds very promising for my diss! And the food! The food was amazing–especially the second day when they had a full Indian buffet. I’ve never had better.

Then this week we were hit with Winter Storm Q. Thursday morning the thunder snow began; I cancelled my 9:30 class, and then the University closed around noon and remained closed on Friday. Which meant no daycare. So today I’m trying to cram two day’s worth of work into one while Derrick is out playing in the snow with the kids. I’m holed up in Conley House, keeping Aunt Sally company. I thought I heard her using the printer on the other side of the wall a while ago, but she was either too fast for me or she was printing on invisible paper because I didn’t see anything when I checked.

And the best part? They say there’s another round of snow coming on Tuesday. Great. Just great.

Last night Derrick and I worked to all hours to get our house in shape. (Is there anything more luxurious than waking up to a clean house? I think not.) Tonight we’re hosting a group of (mostly new) friends. Some have called it a Mennonite gathering, but it’s more or less comprised of people with Menno/Amish roots or affiliation in the Columbia area. Should be fun.

And now I need to get back to work. On to reading for and drafting the third of four body chapters!

In Sickness and in Health

Has it really been 9 days since the last post? And that wasn’t a proper post either. Sigh.

We’ve just slid into the weekend after the first week of school. But the week before that the children were tag-teaming fevers and I was sickish most of the week until I tested positive for the flu on Thursday. On the same day, Barrett was diagnosed with an ear infection and cellulitis (the area around his eye was red and puffy–presumably related to the ear infection). The doc (not our regular doctor) prescribed Tamiflu for the family for which we paid a small fortune. By mid-afternoon, Derrick came home sick from work as well.

The following day Barrett went in for a check-up, and since his eye was about the same, the doctor suggested we go to the ER. We begged for a less expensive option, and ended up seeing a specialist at the University Hospital where we were told that cellulitis can take a long time to resolve–typically more than 24 hours to see an improvement. Happy with the confirmation that the doctor had put us on the right path, we went home and were sick all afternoon.

As tough as the week/weekend was, it could have been much worse. Liberty stayed strong, and I only felt miserable every other day. Derrick was over it by Monday. Barrett grinned and giggled all the way through it. What a child! I think the massive quantities of Vitamin C we’d been consuming must have helped.

This semester I’m teaching one course (a fantastic group of students so far), doing a research assistantship with the Campus Writing Program, taking two professionalization courses, and writing my dissertation. I’m 2,700 words into my second body chapter. With my workload so full, the kids are both in full-time daycare. The adjustment of leaving Barrett there all day has been harder than it was when Liberty started. (My last baby!) They both, of course, are doing fine. It’s me that feels anxiety about it. I really, really want to crank out a draft of each chapter by the end of the semester. I feel as though that’s the only way I can justify the expense of daycare.

Tonight I was planning to spend a few hours on my diss once everyone was in bed, but my brain simply will not cooperate. Writing a blog post is about as good as it gets.

And lest I forget, today Barrett is six months old–halfway to his first birthday! Son, you are a joy beyond anything we could have imagined! You have rolled over a time or two, but it was more an accident than anything intentional. However, you are an expert kicker. When you lay flat on the floor, you kick like a wild thing. In the bath tub, you kick the water with joyful intensity. Bouncing in your johnny-jump-up is your favorite trick. You can’t sit in my lap without almost bouncing out of my arms.

You charm all you meet. People who normally have nothing more than a nod for me stop to hold full-length conversations with you. It’s as if they truly believe you smile especially for them.

You love to eat–breast milk, formula, egg yolks, vegetable puree–you can’t get enough. You love kisses. Nothing delights you more than smooches on one cheek and then the other. You love your toys, reaching for your yellow duck, grinning like it’s an old friend. You love music, not in the background, but loud enough to fill the room.

At first you only recognized your daddy and me, then slowly your sister’s face seemed to grow on you. One day you grinned when you saw her, and now at the end of every day when we are all reunited, you are all eyes for her, loving her attention, her loud, ungainly BOO! in your face. Seeing her dote on your and you soaking up the attention reminds us one more time why we are so happy to have two kids.

We love you, Barrett, and part of us wishes you could stay like this forever.

Sick but happy baby Barrett in our messy front hall.