Paula Poundstone at the PCA Conference
Apr 16th, 2018 by Dr Karma

I love Paula Poundstone.
I have always loved Paula Poundstone, and if I ever get the chance to win on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, her voice will greet you when I don’t pick up the phone.
And I’ll never pick up the phone, just so you can hear her voice.
You’re welcome.
I’ve seen her live several times, and I always include her work on my Stand-Up Class syllabus, because no one does better crowd improv work.
So I was thrilled when she was chosen as our headline speaker at this year’s PCA in Indy. The program said 6:30-8:30, so we gathered on time, only to wait until 7, when a PCA boss came up to introduce her.
The PCA lady told a story about how her husband loves Poundstone SO much and NPR SO much and how he listens to NPR in his car, in their driveway, since the PCA lady apparently won’t shut up.
She then read off a card about how amazing Poundstone was.
But then Poundstone took the stage–and roasted us.
We deserve it. We’re an official association for scholars of popular culture, after all. Our very existence is wonderful in its potential and probable uselessness.
I wish I had sat closer and that she had called on me to talk about what I had presented on–she definitely would have had something to say about “teaching students to tell real news from fake news.”
At 8:30, Poundstone was still going strong, but the PCA lady appeared, right behind Poundstone, scaring her badly.
PCA lady: We need you to stop. The caterers need to leave.
Poundstone: I asked you how long I had, and you said as long as I want.
PCA lady: Well, I didn’t know you would talk all night.
That’s right–the PCA lady, who admitted her husband hides from her because she won’t shut up, was shutting up Poundstone.
And she obviously didn’t know anything about Poundstone, her process, or the glorious way she will go on if you let her.

Censoring vs. Censuring
Apr 7th, 2018 by Dr Karma

I teach my students about the difference between the words censor and censure–because I want them to know what words mean and because I want them to be able to participate in conversations about the 1st Amendment.

This is especially important with my freshmen, many of whom are Chinese, learning here in a system that throws around “free speech” like everyone knows what it means.

The problem is that most Americans don’t seem to know what it means.*

I was disappointed by Bill Maher’s show last night,** because it seemed that he doesn’t know what it means.

He was furious that people are calling for a boycott of Laura Ingraham’s sponsors after her awful comments about the Parkland protestors.

I understand Maher’s anger–he is sensitive about this topic, since he lost his job–and his show–after a statement he made on Politically Incorrect after 9/11. Many people were calling the attackers “cowards.” Maher disagreed. The attackers were many things, but they were willing to die for their beliefs, which means they didn’t fit the definition of coward.

Maher’s opponents falsely claimed that he praised the attackers.

No–he was making a semantic point. (A correct one.)

Which is why I’m disappointed that he equated calling for a boycott of Ingraham’s sponsors with attacks on “free speech.”

Free speech means the government can’t shut you down, can’t imprison you.

It doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want without consequences.

It doesn’t mean that you get to have other people pay you to say those things.

Laura Ingraham gets to say whatever she wants. She can blog about it, self-publish about it, yell it to people walking by, mumble it to herself in the insane asylum where she belongs.

But if her speech is no longer profitable, no one has the obligation to pay her to say it.

The old man on the quad who calls women “sluts” when they walk by gets to do that–free speech!

We can call him an asshole–free speech!

But the university doesn’t have to invite him to give a talk, no one has to publish his rantings, and I don’t have to let him follow my students into the classroom, give him “equal time,” or turn the other cheek.

When we disapprove of speech, by saying, “hey, that’s racist,” we’re not censoring anyone–we’re censuring them. Disapproval is not censorship.

My grandparents liked to remind people that my grandfather served to protect free speech–this was of course a form of censure–an attempt to tell liberals they didn’t have the right to speak if the speech didn’t agree with my grandparents’ view of the world.

Like it or not, my grandfather’s job was to fight for my right to criticize his party and to advocate for minorities and for women’s rights.

My job is teaching writing and critical thinking.

Words have meaning. Which is why the 1st Amendment is important in the first place.




*Of course, the 1st Amendment isn’t the only misunderstood one. Ummmm . . . militias . . . ?

** I have to add that Louie Anderson was on the show. And I love him. Desperately.



Knowing What the Students Know (And Don’t)
Mar 28th, 2018 by Dr Karma

How can I tell what my students know?

Melissa and I are at the PCA/ACA 2018 Conference in Indianapolis. We’re talking about activities we do with students, related to our forthcoming book on evaluating sources.

But today I’m pondering: how do evaluate my students in terms of what they’re learning/what they know?

An informal survey I did with my students this quarter revealed that 90% feel that they know how to find scholarly sources on the internet.

However, only 63% of those same students say they know how to tell scholarly sources from nonscholarly ones.

Ummm . . .

Our inability to know what we don’t know is prevalent in college and beyond. It’s difficult, of course, for educators to know how to do our jobs better when so many uncertainties abound.

In my classes, I do a whole day on finding sources. We talk about genre (in an attempt to stop the students from calling articles “journals” and essays “novels”); we talk about the limits of open sources, including Wikipedia; we talk about what peer review is and why it’s important. I show them the subject guides, how to figure out who their librarian is, and how to work the databases.

These skills are tested later, of course. I have them do a basic quiz (find me a book on this topic, find me a peer-reviewed article on this topic), but applied knowledge is required when they do their later research. In upper division classes, I ask my students, as part of getting ready for their term paper, to find a peer-reviewed article on their topic and to write up an evaluation. (Many students tell me it’s their first time reading an academic article in their field.)

Quite a few students have problems finding one, never mind doing the analytical work I’m asking for. They try to do the assignment on magazine articles, on news pieces, on book chapters, and frequently on book reviews.

And this is where I get stuck. When my student thinks a short review of a book on subject x is the same things as a peer-reviewed article on x, what’s gone wrong?

Did the student skip that day in class?

Was the student there but not paying attention?

Was the student just rushing/half-assing the assignment?

Did the student know better but was hoping I wouldn’t notice?

Did I explain something badly, even though most people found the right type of source?

Is there a question I should be asking that I’m not even thinking of here?

I’m tempted to put a little check box on all of my assignments.

How did this assignment go?

  • awesome
  • it could have gone better, but I rushed it
  • I never actually understood what you wanted because you were confusing
  • I never actually understood what you wanted because I didn’t pay attention
  • I never actually understood what you wanted because I don’t care

Because I do care.

a problematic post-script
Feb 15th, 2018 by Dr Karma

Many years ago, when I was teaching at American River College, I had a student who touched my heart. He came from a poor area of Sacramento and was a first generation college student. He needed extra help, due to a mild intellectual disability. He sought that help, and he worked hard. He was sweet and humble. He managed to get a C and asked if he could write extra papers over the break–for no credit–to get stronger. Thus, we worked together for a few months after the course ended.
I used our story in my diversity statement for jobs.
Then, a year later, he asked if he could talk to me. He came to UCD and explained that he had gotten married to a young mother (after a problematically short courtship) and had promised that he would support her and the baby.
He didn’t have a job, but he was pretending to. He was in debt to his uncle, who was actually supporting them. But his young wife was suspicious.
So he asked me to lie for him–to write, on official UCD letterhead, that I was employing him as my assistant. He wanted me to lie if she called.
I couldn’t do that.
I told him he was asking for a band-aid–that the truth would come out–that marriage had to have honesty–that his wife would prefer honesty to a false belief about her husband as a provider. And I told him I couldn’t lie.
I saw his eyes harden against me.
He left quickly, and I never heard from him again.
I wonder if he’s okay, if he’s still married, if he went back to school, if he blames me for not “helping” him. I can’t bring myself to use our feel-good story anymore.

What I Learned in my Atwood Seminar
Dec 22nd, 2017 by Dr Karma

This quarter, I taught a seminar on Margaret Atwood–we read poetry and short fiction, but focused on The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Alias Grace, and Hag-Seed. It was a great course, and my students were engaged.

A few observations:

  • the current socio-political climate came up during discussions of each book–they’re frighteningly apropos
  • I had to explain second wave feminism, female genital mutilation, the difference between r and x rated films, and many other fascinating things as they came up in discussion
  • my students think Alias is pronounced uh-lie-us
  • a couple of my students, prior to taking the course, thought “feminist” meant its opposite; when one kept saying the commander was being “so feminist,” we cleared it up

My favorite part of the course was on the last day, when we talked about what, if anything, we’d learned together. One of my students said that what all the texts had in common was a warning to pay attention–to wake up to the world around us and to do something about it.

Thank the universe for Atwood.

Close Reading in Kindergarten
Sep 18th, 2017 by Dr Karma

My kindergarten teacher taught us an old rhyme:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?

A Conversation From My Youth:

Me: What does “dainty” mean?
My teacher: Small.
Me: A pie with 24 blackbirds would be really big. Are we saying this wrong? Should we say “undainty”?
[Long pause.]
My teacher: No one else has ever had a problem with this.

What “Alike” Gets Wrong About Education
Apr 4th, 2017 by Dr Karma

When we learned multiplication, one of my classmates discovered he could multiply the top by the bottom OR the bottom by the top and get the same answer.

The teacher made him do his worksheet over.

I watched–and learned–do it her way, or do extra work.

These are the moments that people probably think of when they watch the new Pixar film, Alike. The link I followed made this clear, arguing that the film was touching a cord as it skewers school for making us lose our creativity.

But that’s not what I thought about when I watched this film.

I thought about how I had teachers who fought to teach us science and history in a place (the south) where parents tried to get them fired for doing so.

I thought about my theory of knowledge class–where the very nature of truth and knowledge came under fire–where we were encouraged to debate and to test.

I thought about the encouragement I got from an orchestra teacher when he heard me trying to figure out Flight of the Bumblebee without any sheet music.

I thought about the teacher who circled my cover sheet statement that said 600 words. We had written short stories–the minimum was supposed to be 1000 words. My teacher crossed out her circle after reading the story and wrote “A+ — you couldn’t have added one more word without ruining it!”

I thought about the writing teacher in middle school whose comments were always longer than my papers.

I thought about the teacher who paid out of her own pocket for us all to have our own frog to dissect. Something was coming out of my frog’s abdomen already. I asked what it was and she said, “you’re the best one to figure that out.” (The frog had apparently died of an awful hernia, I discovered.)

I thought about my teachers telling me to learn the rules–before I could break them “prudently.”

I thought about the teachers who forgave me for my chronic lateness–they knew my mom wouldn’t get up to take me to school on time.

I thought about the teachers who listened to me and supported me and encouraged me and basically stood in for the support I didn’t always get at home.

I thought about the teachers who had to deal with us–heartbroken, always–and give advice without reminding us that young love is inherently stupid and dramatic.

I thought about the one teacher who knew I was pregnant the same day I knew (because I told her)–and how she made sure I was always “busy” when it was time to move a piano and who complimented me on the “creative costuming” that let my issue stay hidden until the beginning of the third trimester.

I thought about so many of my university teachers–who managed to open my mind even though I thought I knew how the world worked already.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to think.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to read.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to write.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to act.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to sing.

Can education, when done poorly, kill your creativity? Yeah.

But I became a teacher because my teachers opened my world. My teachers gave me a future. My teachers saved me.

Everyone who moves on in education can think of a few bad teachers. And a few amazing ones. And that has made all the difference.

And now I’ve become a teacher–because I want not just education that inspires, but a job that inspires me as well.

PS–why isn’t the current critique of this film about the awful work world too?

PPS–even though I think this kid’s artistic side should be nurtured, he does need to learn to write. (Says the writing teacher.)

PPPS–Yes, I’m also the viewer who thinks the English teacher in The Blind Side is not the bad guy!




2016 Wrap Up
Dec 31st, 2016 by Dr Karma

We all know the ways in which 2016 has sucked.

I’ve cried a lot more this year, over the deaths of heroes, over the death of reasonable elections, over the fear of how much worse it might get.

But there were good things in 2016.

Melissa Bender and I had a book come out.

I spoke at conferences in Spain, Sweden, London, San Diego, Portland, and Chicago (twice).

I saw Love and Information, The Deep Blue Sea, The Suicide, Aubergine, Keith Lowell Jensen, Emo Philips, Blackberry Winter, Macbeth, Igudesman & Joo, Mr. Burns, Women of Will, the Cashore Marionettes, Disgraced, To Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, Frankenstein, Latin History for Morons with John Leguizamo, The Totalitarians, the opening of the Shrem Museum, and The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.

I did guest lectures and interviews and stage talk backs. I taught courses that I love, films that I love, plays that I love, creative nonfiction that I love.

I taught 15 courses, got my first grad student through her PhD, mentored and performed with my stand-up students, got another Atwood journal out, started prepping for next year’s Oxford course, ran a program, and got chosen to run another.

I made old family favorites and tried new recipes, including my first shepherd’s pie, my first souffle, and my first carnitas. I made tons of soups and stews and proved the worth of my crock pot time and again.

I read books, saw movies, and binge-watched tv.
I recommend The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Fool by Christopher Moore, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Crown, Stranger Things, Westworld, Deadpool, Shaun the Sheep, Arrival, Rogue One, Lady Dynamite, American Housewife by Helen Ellis, Galavant, Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, W1A, anything by John Scalzi, People of Earth, new comedy by Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Ali Wong, Dana Carvey, Louis CK, David Cross, Patton Oswalt (all on Netflix), World of Tomorrow (Netflix), The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Transparent, One Mississippi, and Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood–my favorite book in years.
I have survived another year.
I’m repeating to myself the lessons in World of Tomorrow: “Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
And, like its protagonist, I am proud of myself for no longer falling in love with rocks.
Happy New Year!
2016, fucking fuck you:
Being Dressed Down over Dress Codes: Teaching at a For-Profit College
Oct 26th, 2016 by Dr Karma

I’m fairly sure neither the students nor I wanted to be in our class.

About 15 years ago, I worked at a for-profit technical college, the type so often in the news today.

I had lived in California for about nine months—I had moved out to go to grad school at The University of California, Davis. In return for my teaching, they paid my tuition and gave a small nine month stipend. It was not quite enough to live on, especially as I was a single mother.

“How do people support themselves over the summer?” I asked my grad advisor—it’s not like the rent could go unpaid.

“Hmmm. I actually don’t know that. . . . I think most of them have spouses.”


And so I started teaching summer classes at MTI in Sacramento.

The students were varied—ranging from their early twenties to their fifties. Most were parents. Almost all worked full-time jobs. We would meet three hours a week for an evening. The women primarily wanted to be paralegals and understood the value of the writing class I taught. The men primarily wanted to get a promotion or a move into another business or tech field—they saw the class as another hurdle—a barrier—to what they wanted to do.

When I tried to talk to one man about how to improve his writing, he simply said, “Just give me a C.”

Still, the majority of the students and I got along. Maybe since I had technically been a returning student and was also working my way through higher ed, we understood each other.

The “college” and I are a different story. Perhaps the best way to explain is to talk about appearance.

I had to go out and buy a couple of suits to work there. I managed at UCD with only one—my conference suit—because we didn’t have a “dress code” like MTI did.

We were modeling being professional, we were told.

The students also had to abide by rules, including one that to even be a student, one couldn’t have visible tattoos, as my students informed me.

It’s harder for people with tattoos to get jobs. MTI’s only real marketing point was their alumni job rate (we know that most schools count an alumni having a job if they’re employed at all—even if they have the same job they had before attending). Thus, students who might be hard to place just didn’t get in.


The strangest enforcement of dress codes, though, came when I had emergency surgery.

Part of the reason I came to UC Davis was because they offered healthcare to their graduate students. With pre-existing conditions, I couldn’t get healthcare on my own, not even when I worked for Florida State University prior to moving.

I’d been struggling with immense back pain. After almost a year of trying to figure out what was wrong, I got an MRI, showing a massive sacral disc herniation. (I was 25.)

I should have been in recovery for six weeks, but that’s not how bills get paid, so I was back at work in six days.

The night I came back, the air conditioner wasn’t really working; it was over 100. Halfway through our three hours, I asked the students if they would mind if I slipped off my heels—I wasn’t supposed to wear them with a bad back anyway.

They didn’t mind.

I got an email the next day, saying that someone had looked into my classroom via the 6X2” window in the door.

It said that if I couldn’t dress appropriately for work, I shouldn’t come to work.

Now, this was a “college” that robo called all of us on 9/11/2001 to say that we HAD to have classes as usual—that there would be consequences for deciding not to teach or be taught.

I got on the phone with my supervisor, explaining the situation. She held her ground. It would have been better, yes, to cancel class than to teach barefoot or in sandals.

She suggested that if I couldn’t keep my shoes off, perhaps I should sit behind the desk.

“For three hours?”

“Yes,” she replied, even after I explained to her that trying to keep people’s attention in a hot summer room for three hours is hard enough without losing the energy one gains by standing and walking and using the board.

It would have been disrespectful to my students, I thought, to bore them that way.

My students were horrified when I told them the story in the next session.

My wannabe paralegals wanted to sue, as I was clearly, if temporarily, disabled. I told them it would be more fun to sue on ethnic discrimination. I was raised white trash in the South and thus shouldn’t be expected to wear shoes at all.

Of course, we didn’t sue. We did gripe and let off steam, though.

Why should I be treated differently—and why should they—when my writing class at MTI is supposed to be the same as my writing class at UCD?

I had already published at conferences and had few years of teaching behind me at that point.

I knew how to do my job—with or without shoes.

But that wasn’t the point. MTI didn’t really care about what was happening in the classroom—they only cared what it looked like.

And so we had to cover our tattoos and and put on our suits to dress up MTI.

I have a hypothesis: we need more hypotheses
Apr 30th, 2016 by Dr Karma

As someone who scores straight down the middle on those left brain/right brain tests, I often use science and scientific concepts in my work. (My dissertation was an ethnographic study, and I’m constantly irritating other Atwood scholars by bringing neuroscience into my presentations.)

One thing I particularly want to integrate in the humanities, as a teacher, is the hypothesis. In the sciences, we propose a hypothesis, we conduct research, and we see if we’re right. As long as the research is sound, we’ve done a good job, whether the research proved us right or not. Whether the hypothesis is confirmed or not, we’ve learned something (even if it’s that we need to redesign the study to get clearer results).

Yet when my students approach their papers, they think they need to have a predetermined thesis before they even start to research.

This is an especially bad habit to instill in our students who will go off to grad school, where they will have to tweak their ideas and even abandon their ideas if they discover someone else has already published on that idea–something the grad students will only learn once they do enough research to position themselves in the discourse.

The basic problem: students who have their thesis set before they research will research poorly. They will discard research that complicates or contradicts their thesis (when it could at least be helpful in developing counter-argument). Also, when they’ve found the teacher mandated minimum required sources that confirm their ideas, they stop looking, stop researching, stop thinking completely.

Going into the research process with a hypothesis would allow for better work–the student’s opinion would be more informed, more complex. The student might do what we want her to do–to find more sources than will actually be cited in the essay.

Of course, we would still structure our papers the old-fashioned humanities way. I don’t need my students to tell me their hypothesis in the into, take me through the work (“To test this idea, I googled ‘Shakespeare actually a middle class ten year old girl from the Isle of Skye?’ and then read the first paragraphs of the first thirteen results . . .”), and then conclude with their results. We “show” our work in a different way.

But wouldn’t the paper be stronger if, when the student polished up the piece, that thesis in the intro was for sure an informed opinion based on thorough research?




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