Preview: Garbage Doesn’t Sell

I’m writing series of short stories, and I’ll be starting a blog to share them. Meanwhile, here’s a preview.

Feely the cat was dead.

Run over on the street in front of the apartment slash art studio. That’s where Yolanda found him, on Monday morning, when she was out looking for garbage with her big metal bowl. He was just lying there like maybe he was okay, but he wasn’t okay. His mouth had blood and other stuff coming out of it, stuff that looked like it belonged inside of him, and his eyes were all bugged out. And one of his little legs was sticking out a bad angle. Other than that, he looked really good for being dead. You could tell how soft and fluffy he was, and all his orange stripes and his white paws were there. He looked like he’d still feel really good if you petted him.

“Feely,” she said. It just came out of her mouth, like it meant something, like he could still turn his little head and give her a big, indifferent cat yawn. Still meander over all slow and pet himself on her outstretched hand.

She had to yell and wave her arms a lot to get the traffic to stop. All these cars were just flying down Foothill Boulevard, just honking and speeding and running right over Feely, because they just had to get to their fancy grownup jobs and the mall and wherever people went in a big rush at ten in the morning. Zipping right past her, even though she was waving her arms, yelling, “My cat! My cat!” And he was just getting more and more messed up: flatter, fur smashed into the pavement, leg maybe starting to fall off.

Finally this one guy in a little red car stopped. Yolanda ran into the street and put Feely into the metal bowl. His hips were totally flat like a pancake, with all the guts out. The leg was dangling by some tendons but it was still attached. His head was in pretty good shape, and his fur felt soft, like it looked. But his body was all stiff. She scooped up as much guts as she could with her fingers. She squatted low, got her face close to the street so she could look for small bits like whiskers or some fur or brains.

The people behind the red car were honking. They couldn’t go around because the cars in the other lane were zipping by really fast like usual. Yolanda yelled, “Go burn! Burn in a fire! I hope you get a disease!”

The guy in the red car started honking, too, and waving his arms, like what’s wrong with you, get out of the street. Like he’d never seen a person whose cat got killed before. Yolanda could have stayed there blocking them, could have sat on her butt right there. Pissing people off did not lose her one tiny baby wink of sleep. She thrived on pissing people off. Also it was necessary for people to learn the lesson of not rushing and that sometimes you are just going to be late, and even if you are missing your flight or something, it was not the worst thing that would ever happen to you. It was much worse to have your cat be dead right in front of you and have to pick up all his guts, even if you were kind of ambivalent in your feelings about death as a general thing.

Then she noticed the big puddle of blood that her foot was making. Reminding her she should have put on shoes, because there was always a bunch of glass in the street. So she raised her fist at the cars. She was still in her nightgown so they could probably see her boobs flopping around. And all her armpit hair. Go on, get a good look, television zombies. Brainwashed cartoons. She held the bowl up so they could see Feely. And she yelled, as loud she could with her raspy voice, “This is my cat!” And again, so they’d really know, “THIS is my CAT!”

Stop Calling Students “Unprepared”!

me and Michelle at the 2015 ALP Conference
conference selfie

I might have mentioned before that I sometimes don’t like conferences. I might have also mentioned that conferences about teaching are usually pretty good (mostly because I love talking to teachers).

The conference I just got back from was fucking incredible.

It was the conference of the Accelerated Learning Project, or ALP. Accelerated learning can mean a lot of things, but for the ALP, it means (usually) reducing the time it takes for community college students to get into college level courses.

More than half of community college students are placed into English and math courses that are below college level. We call these students “unprepared,” shake our heads at why students have such low skills, chastise the high schools that give students such bad preparation. But the truth is, most of the students placed into these courses are not incapable of doing college-level work.

In fact, the methods we use to determine who is ready for college courses are horribly flawed. Most colleges use multiple choice tests. Studies have shown that these tests are not valid predictors of student ability. One of the most common tests, Compass, was just discontinued this month because its creator, ACT, determined that the test didn’t predict how students would do in college.

My colleagues and I have taken the placement test given at our college. When the counselors asked us which questions students should get right in order to be prepared for college English, we couldn’t tell them. The questions seemed to have no connection to anything we actually teach. One section in particular baffled me. The directions said, “For the following questions, we will ask you to rewrite sentences in your head.”

So I knew the placement system was bad. In particular, I knew it was bad for the following reasons:

  • It prolongs the time the student will spend in college.
  • It costs the students more money.
  • It discourages students, many of whom drop out rather than face multiple levels needed just to join an actual college course.
  • It sends a message of inadequacy and unwelcome to students.
  • It underestimates the abilities of many or possibly most students.
  • It sets low expectations.
  • It disproportionately places minority, poor, and female students into below-college-level courses.

Another problem with having multiple levels of below-college-level courses is what is called the pipeline effect. As the course sequence to get to college-level classes becomes longer and longer, more and more students leak out of the pipe and never make it through. Every added level that a student needs to take exponentially reduces their chance of reaching a college level course. For example, consider 100 students placed two levels below college-level English. Imagine that 80% of students pass their course and advance to the next course each semester.

100 students enroll in 2 levels below Freshman Comp.
80 students enroll in 1-level below Freshman Comp.
64 students enroll in Freshman Comp.

Only 64% of students get a chance to take the college courses that they had in mind when they enrolled for college.  And these are the best possible circumstances. Eighty percent success is much higher than average in these courses (typical success might be more like 40-60%). Also, not every student who passes the course will enroll in the subsequent course. So the actual numbers of students who never make it through the system are much worse. Of course, some do repeat the course and eventually move forward, but many do not, discouraged by the seemingly endless road ahead of them. Many schools have more than two levels below college-level; four or five levels is not uncommon. 

These numbers are particularly disturbing when you consider that many or most of these students were placed incorrectly by their placement tests. And under-placed students are at great risk of dropping out because of boredom and frustration.

I already knew all this before the conference. That’s why I went: to learn how we can change our system to not place students in lower-than-necessary courses. But the conference made me realize how dire this problem is, and how many students might be wasting their time and money, getting discouraged, and/or dropping out of school because they have been incorrectly placed by a standardized test.

When more students are allowed into college-level English right away, success rates for college English go up, not down.  The following graph shows how many students pass freshman English (the first college-level course) at Butte College. Butte changed from one standardized placement test to another a few years ago. When they gave the new test, they found it placed about twice as many students into college-level English as the previous test had. The college decided to let these placements stand, to see what happened. You might expect that a smaller percent of students would be able to pass college English, since more “unprepared” students were allowed in. But in fact, the opposite happened.

graph of college English completion rates at Butte College
From “Let Icarus Fly: The Four Cornerstones of Gateway Course Completion and the “Re-imagination” of Student Capacity” by John J. Hetts. His research is incredible. Presentation here: http://goo.gl/ArRysg

When students were placed higher, many more students were able to pass college English within two years of taking their first English class. This means that most of the so-called unprepared students were actually able to pass college English and did not need the extra, preparation classes. (The chart breaks the students down by race because the lower placement of non-white students is a particular area of concern). 

For students who do need extra help, colleges can offer a tutoring or support class that takes place the same semester as college English, rather than before it. That way, students get support for their schoolwork, but aren’t prevented from taking college classes.

The best thing about going to a conference about a topic like this is I got to meet lots of amazing teachers who really care about students, about treating them with respect as adults, about not making unfair judgments about them, about making sure they have access to education and that they are truly learning when they are in our classes. It’s amazing to see how many people believe in this model of education, and even more amazing to see the organizers of the conference, who are willing to travel the country fighting for equal educational opportunity for all students. 

Accelerate!

My literary and professional life-partner, Michelle Gonzales, and I are getting ready for a conference in LA later this week. 

Here is what we might wear when we give our presentation: 

me and michelle in 80s outfits me and michelle in sixties outfits

Or I don’t know; I probably have some halfway professional clothes in the bottom of my drawer somewhere.

I don’t like going to conferences. To begin with, I don’t like going anywhere. I really, really like where I am on a regular basis, and I am a little stubborn about not wanting to go other places. Also, I have conference trauma, based on my experiences in graduate school. Granted, I only went to a few conferences, but they were generally like the one I went to on Surrealism: five panels going on simultaneously, one big name at each time slot so everyone attends that panel, all other panels attended by a sparse group of people who a) have some very vague interest in your topic, b) know you personally and feel sorry for you, or c) have a personal vendetta against the famous person on the well-attended panel. 

The panels themselves consisted of  four or five presenters reading pre-written papers that the audience had to listen to without any visual aid or reference. The papers were always about texts that almost no one had read–that’s the nature of English studies–so the audience nodded along and listened for points they could remember long enough to agree or disagree. During the discussion portion of the panel, the audience members would ask questions about their own area of study and how it related to the topic of the presentation, like “Wouldn’t Freud’s idea of the ‘death drive’ undermine the thesis of your paper?” 

Basically what I’m trying to say is that I never learned anything at a conference. Not while I was in graduate school, anyway.

During my final year of grad school, during my annual meeting with the department chair, she sternly told me that my CV needed more conference papers, and that I should aim to speak at two or three conferences that year. “Okay, I’ll do that,” I nodded, straight-up lying to her face. I had my own plans for that year, and one of them was no conferences. 

Since then, I’ve been to a few great conferences. The Future of Minority Studies group put on brilliant, collaborative conferences. They would have everyone read the same several books in preparation, and keep the conference size small so everyone could be at every discussion and presentation, rather than simultaneous panels. I learned a ton at those conferences, because they were structured as a change for real collaborative learning, rather than a chance for people to show off and build their resumes. 

The conference we’re attending this week will be a big conference with multiple simultaneous panels. Our presentation is up against a big name; in fact, we’re up against the group that organized the conference. So I’m not getting my hopes up for a big audience. I’d just like for there to be more audience members than presenters. 

But the good thing is that we’re presenting on a great topic: acceleration for basic skills students. Over 50% of community college students place into courses below college level (often because the placement test is poorly designed). Acceleration is the philosophy and practice of getting these students into college level courses as quickly as possible, rather than making them take multiple semesters of remedial classes. It’s a really important topic (my friend Sara just recommended this great book to me if you want to know more about it).  

The other good news is that this conference is about teaching, and teaching conferences are pretty much always good. No one is at a teaching conference just to show off during their own presentation and scoff at other people’s presentation. Everyone is there to get good, practical ideas that they can bring back to their own colleges. 

Michelle and I taught an accelerated course at our college, so we’ll be presenting on our hard work and the work of our colleagues in designing and implementing this course. It’s a great topic, and I think we created a pretty sweet presentation about it (get this…it has 38 slides) (some with graphs and charts and shit).  

So onward, step on the gas, take us to the conference. I just really hope I learn something. I am pretty sure I will…and I bet I will learn it fast. 

some fancy data in a chart
Some fancy data in a chart. This is in our presentation, bitches!!!

Writing Wins (Adam’s Show)

 Adam Caldwell paintingOn Saturday, I went to my friend Adam’s art opening. His paintings were amazing, of course. And it’s always fun to go to see them hanging in a gallery, looking really official and arty, while hipster art students and awkward, nerdy art bloggers mill around, try to get a word or a photo with the artist, gush over his work. 

I have a lot of writer friends, but just this one artist friend (I have other artist friends who are Adam’s friends that I met through him, and an artist mom). I love doing work at his art studio, watching him paint, feeling like a real artsy-artist surrounded by canvases and brushes and easels and globs of oil paint. 

Sometimes we argue about what is harder, being a writer or a painter. Obviously writing is harder, more grueling and less rewarding due to the following reasons that I have kindly listed below. 

  • A painting never requires you to to go research the history of, say, nineteenth century Russian prisons. 
  • Painters don’t have to invent imaginary yet realistic people in their minds. 
  • 20150613_212352_resizedA painting takes about a week to paint. Maybe a small, simple painting takes a day. A complex painting might take month. Writing a novel takes years, unless you’re Stephen King, in which case, a) you write a book in six months, then take a break for six weeks during which time you write a fucking novella, b) fuck you anyway and c) thanks for writing Carrie and that awesome book about writing. 
  • When Adam is done with a painting, he takes a photograph and posts it on Instagram. Four hundred people click “like” in fifteen minutes.  
  • It doesn’t take three weeks to look at a painting. Your friends don’t have to carry it around with them to enjoy it. 
  • You can paint and listen to NPR at the same time. 
  • No attractive hipsters ever come to your writing opening.  

Here are a few reasons painting is harder, though: 

  • You can’t do it in a coffee shop. 
  • You have to buy paint and stuff. 
  • If you paint a portrait, the person’s two eyes have to look the same. 
  • If there are bricks, you have to paint all the bricks. 

I am pretty sure that is all the reasons. Clearly, writing is harder. That’s okay. Art isn’t a contest of who does the most work. If it was a contest, though, writing would win. Also I would like to point out that I am not jealous of all those Instagram likes, not at all. 

painting of dancers

Adam’s show is currently on display at White Walls Gallery SF.  You can go like all his paintings on Instagram

Reunion

Sara and me Today I had lunch and a long walk with my best friend from graduate school, after twelve years of not being in touch.

I met Sara when I visited Michigan for the first time. The University of Michigan English department offered an expenses-paid welcome week for students who had been accepted into the PhD program. It was a long way to travel during the middle of the semester (I was a senior at Berkeley), but my roommates and I were in a giant, blowout fight and I was looking for any reason to get out of the apartment. So I went. It was good I did, because that trip convinced me to go to Michigan.

One thing that happened on the trip was I met Sara, and we hit it off instantly. We were were in very different areas of study (she was in early modern, i.e. Renaissance, while I was in twentieth century and literary theory), but we had so much in common. Both of us were nerds who hung out with partiers, the kind of students who might go out drinking all night with their friends on Friday but skip the next night, because we had to finish all our reading for Monday. We were both sweet, good-girl types who also had some pretty serious authority issues. 

We used to get together and study after our classes. I remember she was such a fast reader, while I read slowly; it used to make me crazy jealous. We would drink pots of coffee and she would smoke cigarettes and we would complain about the system. The system of graduate school. It was a hierarchy, a patriarchal hierarchy, and they couldn’t even see it, man.  How could they be so oblivious to the irony, all this critique of convention and arbitrary systems of value, and yet, look around. Didn’t they notice that if you wanted to write about James Joyce, you had to hang out with that one young, hip professor who was the Joycean, and that you also had to be young, hip, male? Didn’t they hear how dismissive they sounded when they talked about undergraduates? How could these Marxists not notice the way they told you not to write about what interested you, but what was the most marketable? Wasn’t their hypocrisy so, so, so obvious? 

We both ended up dropping out in different ways. She left with her Master’s and got a teaching degree, ending up as a high-school principal.  I finished my PhD but then got into community college teaching (which the layperson might not realize is not an acceptable job for someone with a PhD from a research university). Once she left my department, our schedules became really different, and it was hard to get together as much, and then we both moved away. We haven’t really been in touch until a few months ago. 

Today we met up in San Francisco, where she was visiting for her job. We had tea and lunch, took a long walk down Market Street to the water, talked about our lives and our jobs and education. She told me how she is spearheading a new, more creative curriculum for her school, and I told her about the conference I’ll be presenting at next week on how my department accelerated our low-placing students into a higher-level class. She told me about a book that supports my presentation. 

I always love talking to educators. That’s one reason I became a teacher (and why I call myself a teacher or instructor rather than a professor): because I love teachers, and I wanted to really like the people I worked with. And I do. I currently teach in a department that is more like a family than a workplace, with colleagues who are pretty much geniuses at instructing and inspiring budding writers. They never act like we are above our students, a few notches higher in a hierarchal system. All they care about is giving those students the best possible learning experience, so they can become our doctors and accountants and firefighters and car mechanics some day. 

I think Sara and I both know we were spoiled to get a free education, funded by fellowships and teaching positions, and to have access to the brilliant scholars who were our professors. But we also both knew, when we left, that there was no point sticking around research universities being annoyed and talking shit. Still, we did do a little shit-talking today, just a little, about how glad we are to be out of a profession that, for us, just didn’t get it, and into a profession that really, really does. 

How to Recover

So, my back went out like I knew it would. I’ve lived with this back for my whole life, and with this injured back for about eight years, and I know it very well. I did everything I could to help it: I got a massage, I did tai chi and chi kung, I went easier on my training. But today, in the middle of chi kung actually, something seized up in my back and now the whole right side is frozen and angry.

I’m not surprised any more. This happens at the end of every single semester. I used to gets colds when my classes ended; now the thing seems to be back pain. I know why, too. For at least three weeks at the end of every semester, I go into work early, grade papers before class, stay at work as late as I possibly can, skip tai chi or cardio training to grade a few extra essays, spend every non-training night at the coffee shop grading. By the end of that, my back feels like someone has replaced it with sheet metal. 

Then, when the semester is actually over, I say to myself: I have missed so much writing! I have missed so much training! I need to do all of it right now!!! So then I spend ALL day sitting, writing at the coffee shop for six hours, heading to my training space early to fit in a few extra sets of burpees, adding in all those extra workouts I had been skipping. 

I know what the answer is supposed to be: more recovery. I used to recover at the end of semester when I was a student. I didn’t really have a choice; I was too exhausted to get out of bed. Every time I finished a chapter of my dissertation, I knew I would spend a week brain-dead, sleeping ten hours a day, so unable to move forward to the next chapter that there was no point dragging myself to the library to pretend I was working. 

With my regular life a little more balanced, I don’t think I need to spend the week after every semester sleeping and watching TV. I’m not sure that recovery like that would help now. Probably the thing to do is to remember to ease my way into summer, not to jump in so crazy. But even when I think that’s what I’m doing, the back problems happen. 

I think a lot about recovery. I suppose it’s not so different from what people are calling “self-care.” That term sort of annoys me (not that I think it’s a bad term, just that something about it makes me tense), and now I realize why: I have a very antagonistic relationship to recovery. I don’t think I’m the only one; that’s why all those stress-case bloggers are blogging about how to do self care, like it’s a chore. It is a chore! Unless I am so exhausted, sick or injured that I cannot do anything but sleep, recovery never feels tranquil or healing to me. It feels forced, uncomfortable, like stretching when you’re stiff. GET UP AND TAKE A BREAK, I shout at myself. GET A FUCKING MASSAGE OR SOMETHING. 

Once I get to this state, where I am broken and discouraged and pathologically tense, I tell myself, you suck at relaxing and this is a horrible weakness in your life! I would also like to point out that I’m not some mega-productive workaholic, as I am making myself sound. Part of this cycle is that I am less focused when I work because I am so stressed and tired. So I procrastinate a lot, look at stupid crap on the internet. Then I yell at myself: you suck at working! You suck at focusing! 

So today I was telling myself all this, and I was thinking, this will never get better, right? It happens every semester! Even when I sort of half-assedly try to prevent it! There is my destiny/curse and I cannot escape! My life is a giant mess!!!

Then I remembered all the things I used to feel this way about, this constant, puzzled, helpless turmoil. Things like fighting with friends, finding a fulfilling career, eating healthy but not obsessing about eating healthy, taking a week off kickboxing without fearing I would forget everything I had ever learned. All kinds of things. There are dozens of problems in my life that took me years to work through, that once dominated my life, things that seem puzzlingly unproblematic now. I wasn’t stupid or a failure for not being able to sort those things out instantly, or even over a few years. Some of them took a decade to work out. But now they’re not problems anymore. They’re good parts of my life, things that work, the reasons my life is better every year as I figure more things out. Sometimes younger people complain to me about these parts of their lives, and if they ask my advice, I give it to them, and I tell them that this is part of the stage of life they are in and that it will get sorted out in a few years. And then I see that my response gives them hope, and I feel all old and wise and shit. 

So this advice is from my future, even older self: some day you will figure this out. It’s part of this stage of life. And some day, you will be past it. 

Stranger Envy

Every time I look at someone sitting across from me at the coffee shop
Someone working hard on their computer
Writing thoughtfully in their notebook
Someone giving their full attention to the papers spread in front of them
Someone not squirming in their seat, staring out the window
Someone who has a really nice outfit
Stylish and comfortable and well-fitting and unwrinkled
Someone whose hair seems messy in a planned-out way
Someone too focused to care about their hair
Focused yet carefree
Like the Dalai Lama, someone like that
Every time I see this person, envy the wonderful life they lead,
Wonder what it’s like to be
completely perfect in every way,

I try to imagine the person who feels the same way when they look at me
The person who doesn’t notice the tightness of my back
The surging stress hormones in my blood
The pimples and bruises and scratches
The pile of chewed gum in the wrapper next to my computer
The person who looks at me and thinks, I bet her life is perfect.
That person can’t exist every day,
But they might exist any day, the person for whom I’m the perfect stranger.
I think of them, and how they think I am
And I try to be like that.