Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why I read...

In 1992 I was a half-committed, half-serious pre-med student struggling through organic chemistry and physics. I was clinging to the "dream" of going to medical school and becoming a compassionate and rich doctor.  Though I'd made my share of mistakes in college, I was still working towards that elusive goal.

Then Dad died.

I'm pretty sure I got through that semester on the charity of my instructors. Keri went to class for me and took notes (we were only dating, but she was, even then, a wonderful friend), and I really did try to do the work, but I was very distracted by the events of April 1992. When I went back to school that fall, I really (I mean REALLY) struggled, and my instructors were no longer cutting me any slack. I was in a death spiral, so I got out of school entirely.

When it was time to get back in school a few semesters later, I took what I figured was a "gimme" course called "Great Books." It was a non-majors English course in which we read Odyssey, Jane Eyre, The Bean Trees, and a couple of other books I've forgotten. I realized in that course that I was doing something that #1) I loved, and #2) I was pretty good at. So... I kept doing it.

I don't remember a time when I wasn't a pretty committed and enthusiastic reader. It was, from early in my life, a big part of the way I defined myself-- how I identified myself. Even when I was heavily involved in other things, I was reading widely and deeply (or at least I assumed I was reading deeply-- who knows). 

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about why I read. There are several reasons I read these days:
  1. It's what I do for a living. When I assign students to read Beowulf or whatever, I have to (get to) read it too. It would be irresponsible for me not to re-read books I'm teaching-- even if I've read them many, many times. So, I read to teach.
  2. Some books are safety. Books like The Bean Trees or Light in August or Speaker for the Dead or Bleak House are familiar territory and their pleasures are well known to me. Like a warm cinnamon roll and a glass of ice-cold milk, a familiar book is feel-good food for the soul. Sometimes I'm reading because it tastes good.
  3. I read to see what's over the next rise. When I was growing up, sometimes Dad would take us on a drive to "parts unknown" to see whatever there was to see around the next bend. That sense of exploration has rooted in me, but more in a literary sense that in a Sunday drive sense. Sometimes I wander through the library in parts of the stacks that I normally don't consider, picking up books and reading first pages. Other times I listen in to hear what others are reading that I haven't read (or haven't even heard of, often). Sometimes I discover things that delight and amaze me.  The Sparrow was one such discovery. The Eyre Affair was another.
  4. Closely related to #1, though different enough, I think, to warrant it's own place on this list is the reading I do to expand my students' minds. Sometimes, as with Beowulf or whatever, I assign works that I'm very familiar with. In other instances, I read to discover something that fills a niche in a course I'm designing. For example, when I was first hired at CSI, the chair of my department assigned me to teach "Survey of World Mythology." Though I had pretty good ideas about "western" mythologies, I had to read to figure out what I should teach from other traditions (eastern, native american, african, etc.). 
  5. I read for self improvement. I read texts that I hope will make be a better man, a better husband, a better father, etc. 
  6. I read to my children. Together we've read Harry Potter (surprise), Lemony Snicket, Fablehaven, and Ender's Game (not to mention Bernstain Bears, Dr. Seuss, Toot & Puddle, etc.)
So, what do you read, and why?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My photo in the local paper

I posted a note on my photography blog a while back about one of my photographs winning first place in the local paper's summer photo contest. It was published this last Sunday (scroll down a bit to see the article entitled "The Moments of Joy").The photo itself is kind of hard to see on the site, so I've included it here too.

Cub Scout Family Pack Meeting

Kinda fun, eh? ;-)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Feeling quite a bit better, thanks

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words and warm thoughts sent our way. It was a bit of a tough day when we found that our "miracle" buyers weren't actually so miraculous, but we're rebounding and finding good things to think about. My wife gave me Dove chocolate and my office mate gave me Riesens. What's not to love?

More soon.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I called the person who came to look at the house last week. It was a short conversation. They're not interested. (sigh) In retrospect (where everything is crystal clear) I could tell that they weren't as enthusiastic when they left as they had been upon arriving. What I wish I knew now is why. Which part of the house turned them off? Was it the one bathroom (in the listing)? the smallish kitchen (there's a picture-- in the listing)? the overall layout (not in the listing, but what can you do)? Perhaps there's not really anything we can change without spending big $$$ that would make a difference to some people.

We did have one potential buyer back in the spring who liked everything. The couple was very eager to have a house that size, in that neighborhood, around the price we were asking. They just couldn't swing the financing. Darn banks are (finally) learning their lesson about lending practices, I guess, and when these folks didn't quite meet the requirements, the bank denied 'em. 

I'm morose. I'm feeling a little sick to my stomach. I'm sad. I'm done for the day.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The weekend is HERE!

I spent my blogging energy over at the photography blog today, so head on over there to have a look.

We have an exciting weekend in store for us. I'm off to help Keri and to see if I can get something done around the house before we head off to meetings on Saturday evening and Sunday.

Have a good weekend. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Are you gellin'?

Dr. Morache and I share an office and so we talk, from time to time, about how class went. In other words, when she gets back from class, I sometimes ask, “How did it go?” She asks me the same thing occasionally. It’s a good way to “process” what works and what doesn’t in our teaching techniques. I think we both find it to be an important part of our professional development to vet ideas with one another and try to keep our feet on the ground.

Something we’ve both been discussing lately (and all teachers out there will recognize this concern) is why the same lesson plan and presentation will really fly with one section and really bomb with another. Why is that?

When I was a first year teacher at the University of Utah, I had two sections of English 2010 (which is the same as our 102) back to back three times a week. I prepared one lesson plan for both sections (same class, so it makes sense to not overdo it). The first section was responsive enough. They would discuss the issues and ideas, debate the finer points, develop theses and defend them, etc., but there was never really much energy in it. They showed up, they did the work, and they went home. Okay. Fair enough.

The second section, which met immediately after the first, had a far different dynamic. Rather than just going through the motions, they would really dig in to the issues. They’d debate, but it was with some passion and excitement. They’d develop ideas and defend them, but with vigor and creativity and imagination. They’d get so excited to get their oar in that they’d talk over each other in their haste to be hear. That was occasionally a problem, but that’s the kind of problem that a teacher likes to have.

Of course, one might argue that because I’d covered the material once that the second go-round would be more polished– better presented. That’s probably true to a degree, but I compared my “presentation” from section to section and I didn’t find that much different (argue, if you will, about my subjectivity). To me, my part– the so-called “teaching”– was the same in each section. What caused the different dynamic in each class, then?

Here’s another example: this semester I have two back-to-back sections again. They exhibit different dynamics too, but the order is reversed. That is to say, the earlier section is the class that gels– that gets fired up and bounces ideas off one another and moves the discussion along in a lively and useful way. The later section stays pretty flat most of the time (students from that section, if you are reading this, help me understand the dynamic). In this case, one might argue that the more polished, or at least rehearsed, presentation is failing to elicit the greater response. What’s up with that?

So… bottom line… what makes a class gel? Which are the elements that bring students together to create a lively, productive class atmosphere? What have you observed? What have you done? What works, and what doesn’t?


(BTW, this useful, exciting “dynamic” can be present in online classes as well, but takes on a little different form. We can discuss that in another post.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Housing market roller coaster

I started this little blog (I mean when I started doing it regularly) after we'd had our house on the market for a few months, so it kind of never really came up before. In other words, it was old news-- I was tired of worrying about it-- things kind of tanked after we put our house out there (in fact, we joke about causing the mortgage crisis-- the week we put our house up for sale was about the first time I started hearing about people's worries)-- etc. So, I never blogged about it. 

About 4 or 5 weeks ago we decided to take a breather from having it on the market. It'd been 6 weeks or something since the last time anyone looked at it. We'd gotten one or two really (REALLY) low-ball offers and we were sick of the whole thing. I told our agent that we would not be renewing the listing agreement. He was okay with that. In fact, he'd just completed a compartive market analysis that said the value of our house was down some anyway. Yikes!

Here's the funny thing... WAY back when we first listed it, I put it on ForSaleByOwner.com and paid the "list it until it sells" fee rather than going month to month. So, even though we don't have an active MLS listing, you can still find our house "on the market." And... you know where this is going, don't you?... somebody called about the house today. They want to look at it tomorrow. Double yikes!

What do we do now? We want to sell it, but are we ready to buy something else? We thought we were, but now we're kind of past that and hunkering down to wait until next year. What if they make a reasonable offer? Then we'd actually have to figure out what comes next. Triple yikes!

Well... WAY back when... we put this whole think in the Lord's hands. I trust that he is still in charge, if we let him be. We'll try that.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A new stake in Twin Falls

Okay, some of my readers may not care too much about this, but for us Mormons in the area, a new *stake is kind of a big deal. As much as anything, it means we'll bump into new people at stake-level meetings, and we'll miss bumping into some old friends who will be in the new stake.

Here's how it shakes out (for those, formerly from Twin Falls, who might care):

Twin Falls Stake
11th (formerly in the Kimberly stake)
15th (also from Kimberly stake)
College 1st
Blue Lake Branch

Twin Falls South Stake (the new one)
17th (all formerly in the Twin Falls Stake)
other wards from TF West stake (don't remember exactly which ones)

TF West
same old wards, minus the ones moving to the South Stake

same wards, minus 11th and 15th (but keeping the 19th ward, which is actually in Twin Falls)

Besides redrawing boundary lines to accommodate these changes, it also means releasing quite a few folks from stake callings. Fully half of the Twin Falls stake high council will be in the new stake, and one member of the stake presidency. Every auxiliary leader except YM (i.e. YW, Primary, RS) will be released to go to the new stake. No ward boundaries are changing, so no changes in bishoprics, etc., but lots of folks getting moved around and adjusting to new things.

Here's something that may be a bit hard for some folks to swallow. We haven't even dedicated the new stake center adjacent to the temple and folks who thought it would be "their" stake center have to (get to) go back to the Maurice St. building. That old building still has plenty of life left in it, but it is awkward and a bit of a pain sometimes. I think its accurate to say that people have a love/hate relationship with that building.

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The various sessions of stake conference to work out the details of the change will be held in the new building and then folks in the South stake are moving back to Maurice St. They'll get a new building eventually, but not in the next several years, I'd bet. They don't have land in that part of the valley yet, as far as I know (which ain't much, really).

Anyway, what does it matter? Beyond who we get to see at stake conference or whatever, it means that opportunities for growth and service in the Magic Valley expand. Each of the stakes has 8-9 units in it, but the potential for growth still exists-- particularly in the South and West stakes and the Kimberly stake (the Twin Falls stake is kind of land-locked).

The change also means a new stake president, which means a general officer from the church will preside at the stake conference and select that president. Because most church administration at the local level comes from stake presidents, members of the church view them in fairly high regard. Speaking rather personally, stake presidents set the tone for church service and administration, and give direction to what many lay members do from day to day and week to week. Without endowing them with too much supernatural power, I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that they speak for God in this part of the vineyard. That's pretty cool and pretty important.

The dedication of the temple was just one of many moving experiences of the summer. I anticipate that the creation of a new stake will be another-- particularly if we go in to it looking for the hand of God in what is done.

On a related note-- related to spirituality, anyway-- I've been rereading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead so I can read the companion novel that was just released, Home. The first takes the form of letters from an aged father to his very young son and takes place in Gilead, Iowa (a fictional place). It touches, in part, on the father's relationship with a dear friend and that friend's wayward son. The second takes up the same time period, but from the POV of the dear friend. I read the first 3-4 chapters of Home before realizing that I didn't remember enough of Gilead to recognize their points of intersection (and finding such textual common ground is one of my favorite parts of reading), so I'm back to Gilead today. I hope to finish it in the next day or so, so I can read Home and then be worth something to my classes again. In the meantime, I'm WAY distracted by having something delicious to read.

The protagonists of Gilead and Home are both preachers and I have enjoyed their examinations of spiritual matters. Perhaps I'll post about some of them soon.

*"stake" is roughly equivalent to diocesis, whereas "ward" is roughly equivalent to parrish.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fun party pad

This past summer I took the boys to Sunrise park most weekdays for the free lunch. It was a good budget stretcher, and the kids ran off a few of those popsicles they'd eaten every day all summer long.

I ran in to Mark and Sharyl Wasden there a few times and they let me in on a fun Twin Falls secret. They have a party place with those cool inflatable bounce houses. It's called Hop 2 It and it's just down the street from the movie theaters near Kimberly Road.

In exchange for some family photos (which they haven't called to have me do yet-- come on Mark, we're waiting on you), they let us have Caitlin's 4th birthday party there. That was a blast!

The kids got to bounce around and generally be crazy for a couple of hours and then we had ice cream and cake. Mark and Sharyl provided drinks and utensils, and even provided a cute T-shirt for the birthday girl. We invited practically the entire 1st ward primary. I think there must have been 40 kids there. Everyone had a great time.

Check it out, and if you're having a birthday or some other party soon, go there. You won't be disappointed.

O Brother, Where art thou?

If you study mythology at all, you have to deal with Odyssey at some point. Odysseus' story is one of central texts, perhaps THE central text, in the mythological canon. It's the prototype--nay, the archetype--for every other important story. The tropes are central and enduring.

Hero is at home-- all is well. Something causes the hero to leave home. Hero has an extended journey--out in the world. Hero deals with monsters, seductresses, magical talismans, important and meddling supernatural forces, heaven, hell, etc. Hero makes her way back home, but with a significant difference. S/he is changed and brings salvation or rescue or enlightenment to those who are at home. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, (wo)man gets self into a hole, (wo)man gets self out. (Which version do you like here?)

So... we're reading Odyssey in the survey of mythology course. Students are having fun with it, exploring what makes Odysseus tick, why Penelope would wait for him, what Athena gets out of helping him, why Telemachus is so uptight about his dad, why Poseidon can't leave Odysseus alone, etc. I asked them a few days ago to think about where Odyssey's influence is seen in other stories, etc. They came up with a few, like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Wishbone, and so on.

The one I like most, however, they didn't get right off-- O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen brothers. So, I popped it in the DVD player and we watched about the first half of it. They loved it. Of course, many of my readers (both of you) will say, "Yes, O Brother... is an obvious choice for having some fun with Odyssey." I still get a kick out of watching my students watch that movie. It is a fun discovery for most of them.

I think, however, that the Coens should have left out the "credit" to Homer at the beginning of the movie. What purpose does that serve besides pointing out how clever Ethan and Joel are? Anyone who knows very much about Odyssey will get the references anyway, and Homer doesn't get a single penny from the Coens for using his story.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The wheels go 'round, but the elevator-- she don't go all de way...

I really should come up with a new gig. Not a new job-- I really do like what I do quite a lot. What I mean is, I should find some new and exciting way "in" to my courses besides Saussure and Barthes. I've made way too much hay (or is that "hey") from the linguistic sign + "mythology" thing, AND I get one section mixed up with another. I spent a good part of my 102 class today finding out that 1) I had covered the basic linguistics stuff with them last time, but 2) I had NOT covered Barthes yet and they had no clue what I was talking about. It's kind of pathetic that I can't remember from one class session to the next what I've covered. I even have "notes" from the lesson plan before suggesting what I needed to cover next. And it's not that I can't read my handwriting or whatever. It's just that I'm absent-minded. In my defense, however, it has been 5 days since the last class session (with Labor Day intervening). So there... (sigh).

On a more positive note, our discussion (in 102) of the Diane Arbus photograph went quite well. The students' responses to it suggested that they got the linguistics/Barthes stuff and were (for the moment, anyway) reading the image at a pretty sophisticated level. It'll stick for some of them. For others we'll have to go over it again. That's okay, though. Repetition is the way to go around here. Repetition is the way to go around here... ;-)

I re-subscribed to a couple of listservs that I had put on "hold" for the summer-- TechRhet and WPA-L. WPA-L is the one I read to keep in touch with the direction the field is moving generally. TechRhet is the one I read to find out about new toys. The newest toy is Google's browser (aka Chrome). Scott McCloud (author of _Understanding Comics_, which I use in my 102) wrote the comix introduction for the release. Nifty (and very "new" media, from a certain point of view). Lots of good ideas here, but I see that someone has already found an exploit. I wonder how soon after yesterday's afternoon launch the first patch will be released.

Scott McCloud's intro of Google Chrome

I'm running Chrome now and find it pretty speedy. One annoying thing (kind of) is that the context menu does not (yet) have a "refresh" command. For Blackboard users, the only way to reload a content page within the Blackboard frame is the context menu (aka the right-click menu). Firefox even has a context menu specific to the frame in which you click.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Slaving away

Okay. I've been slaving away on a holiday. So far today I have:

  1. posted (finally) the second part of my online lit students' "getting to know you exercise"
  2. responded to their introductory posts (something personal for each student, don't you know)
  3. finalized Task #3 for my 101 students
  4. begun a draft of Task #4
  5. thought seriously about how much of Odyssey I have to read tonight to stay up with my mythology students (yikes). Never mind that I've read it before. They expect me to read right along with them.
  6. downloaded "A Connected Life: A look a mobile strategies for schools, colleges, and universities" from, of all places, the folks at Blackberry. (BTW, when filling out their "form" to get access to the above, I noticed that in the field for department, they don't offer any academic fields except engineering and the like, and under "job description" professor isn't listed either. What? They don't think anyone except engineers will use mobile devices in teaching? Hmmm.)
Now it's time to run over to the fair and pick up my premiums. I won a blue and two red ribbons in photography. Hurray! I'll get maybe $4. That's okay, though.

After that, a BBQ and water party with Arringtons. It's pretty chilly in Twin Falls today. Is it too cold to swim? We'll see.