Archive for September, 2014

I’ve actually got two novels in my hopper–and for some reason, Chapter Six always breaks me down. I don’t know why I always get stuck there. The current one, though, is coming together better than the one I’d been messing with for a few years (which was a bildungsroman cum Dark Percy Jackson; I felt like I had a cool idea, but I sure didn’t want to compete with such a great guy as Rick Riordan, even if my stuff was much, much meaner). The present novel has a general outline and a detailed concordance that is proving to be a useful tool. I have one more chapter of ‘setting up the world.’ and then I can get down to the crime(s) that pull in the main characters. I even have an ending planned, and the critter is doing a nice job of writing itself in many ways. I don’t want to say too much because I know people steal like crazy off the Internet. Suffice it to say, I am playing to my strengths…writing what I know. It’s a mystery set just before World War I involving  an interesting female protagonist and her lady’s companion (who is proving to be an unexpectedly fun character to write). And yes, there’s a love interest, but he’s more of a friend for quite some time. The crimes are not too heinous, but I hope they are ‘clever,’ and I am trying to be quite historically precise on every…tiny…detail. That’s involving a lot of reading and research on the time and place (1913 Vancouver), which turns out to be quite the hotbed of plot threads. How did we write before the Internet?? I guess we just made crap up and hoped no one checked too thoroughly on our work.

The concordance is vital to my writing. Since it’s historical, I needed to develop ‘mini-bios’ for all the characters with things like their dates of birth and any important events during their lives, along with a timeline that covers the year before the start of the novel. I got my hands on train schedules, immigrant records (for names), period house plans, 1913-era dress patterns, and even articles on how the earliest hospital x-rays machines worked. I’ve reviewed where missionaries worked in China, and on my last visit to Vancouver, grabbed all the materials I could on the police during that time period. Will I get an agent? Will I be able to sell this? Who is my target market? I’m trying not to worry about those things and simply write well. I’m thinking this is going into ‘historical mystery’ and hoping the current fascination with World War I’s centennial will give me some selling power. But…that means getting it written quickly, and that’s not happening just yet. I’m cranking out, on average, a chapter a week. I’ll post general updates here. My best friend is a superb writer and editor, which is good for me, and I have a few friends in the business that may give me a hand if I beg. All I want right now is to have the complete manuscript, sitting on my lap in hard copy, before the end of January. That’s my goal, folks, and I’m sticking to it.

I’ve hopefully concluded a 3-month contretemps with Choice Privileges. I redeemed some points back in June for an Amazon gift card. I waited the requisite 4 weeks–no card. I called and got the run-around, but was advised to wait 4 more weeks to be certain, and someone would follow up. It never happened. I finally called back again (waiting about 6 more weeks), got a bit more of a deflection, but finally, they agreed to reissue my points. However, they were quite grudging about it. “We’ve decided to reissue your points,” said the rep, “but only if you understand that this is a one-time only courtesy on our part, and that if you do use those points for a gift card that never arrives, we will not re-issue them again.” No thanks to me for being a customer. Nothing.

I told him that while I knew it wasn’t his fault personally, his script was terrible, and he needed to let his supervisor know that. A better response would be: “Ms. Andromache, we are sorry about the loss of your points and gift card. We are re-issuing you the gift card, now that we’ve investigated the missing points, and you’ll receive a tracking number so it won’t get lost. Our company policy is that unfortunately, we are not responsible for any losses in the mail, and I regret that it happened. I hope this card arrives with no problems. Again, we apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience resolving this issue. We look forward to your next stay with us at a Choice hotel property.”

So, that’s a second hotel chain knocked off my list. I used to LOVE Holiday Inn Express…until they botched a very important reservation, where it was not just me involved, but a group of about half a dozen people, with no remorse, no apology, and no concern shown. I haven’t stayed at one of their properties in almost five years now. (The manager would not return my phone calls, and some poor desk clerk tried his best to help–it was the manager who incurred my wrath when she lied and said she’d talked to me and resolved the situation when I went higher up. That was nasty icing on the cake).

I’ve had the best luck with Hilton and Marriott properties for ‘regular’ travel (hello, I can’t afford to stay at Omni or Fairmont too often, both of which were amazing)–and both the Marriott and Hilton loyalty programs have thus far earned me rooms in some very nice places. Returning from a long trip a few years ago, a Marriott employee went out of her way in rural West Virginia to help us when my son got suddenly very ill; she contacted a local drug store and got us numbers for the emergency clinic, making sure we had ice brought to our room, and was just a genuinely nice person (it was one of the worst cases of strep throat the PA said she’d ever seen when we got to the clinic the next morning). Hilton/Hampton employees were particularly nice after the death of my father and during the settling of his estate. We got to know each other quite well since I was there for about a week. (I also need to say that the one time I did have a special need/request, it was honored, even if it was a bit odd–no feathers).

I probably should have been more polite to the poor guy on the phone (I didn’t yell; I just told him I thought their resolution wasn’t particularly customer friendly)–I realize this is beyond his control. But–his tone had no empathy; rather, it was perfunctory and blunt. Again, there wasn’t a single variation of “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” Even if didn’t make any real difference in relation to the missing card, it would have been nice to hear. His script was more to the tune of “I have to reiterate to this lady that if a second card goes missing, there’s nothing further we can do.” I do think there is a way to say both–or at least sound like you are sincere. So–for the price of a $50 gift card, they’ve permanently lost me as a customer. Because I travel so much, people often ask me for my opinion on hotel chains. Wonder if he/they realized that I will be passing on their lack of customer empathy to all those friends and co-workers who ask me where I stay on my travels….Bazinga!

As an educator of 20 years, mostly in higher education, people often ask me what I would change about our current education system in the U.S. Five years ago, I would have said it’s fixable. We can reform it within. I can no longer say that. Those of us who teach college are seeing problems that we cannot fix. Here are my top picks for ways to make the U.S. education system a much better one, or at least start the process of change.

1. Treat teachers like the professionals they are. This includes a salary comparable to other professions that require a four-year degree and a professional internship. Ideally, as part of their professional development, all teachers should be encouraged and supported in obtaining a master’s degree as well—not for the increase in pay, but for the intrinsic increase in knowledge.

2. By the same token, make the standards for teacher education and qualification rigorous. Raise the GPA for admission to candidacy, add a fifth ‘supervised’ year of training under a mentor teacher (i.e. the new teacher is autonomous in his/her classroom, but has an experienced guide who can help them with the common problems of first-year teaching), and create a set of meaningful certification criteria that has reciprocity across states. Have yearly evaluations that include periodic observations, portfolios, and interviews rather than putting so much emphasis on students’ test scores or a once-a-year observation. If a teacher is to be considered an ‘expert’ in a specific academic discipline, he or she should hold a master’s degree in that subject as well.

And here is an addendum to colleges of education or other institutions who grant teaching degrees: Make your teacher education candidates work for it. Don’t ignore your undergraduates in favor of your research or grad students. Make sure you focus on giving students in teacher education in-school experiences plus sharp thinking and problem solving skills. Encourage their growth and creativity. Be picky about who you allow into your programs. Do not allow teacher education to be the major people choose when they can’t get into nursing school (sad, but true). Make it be the major that your best college students actively seek out…and if there is competition for limited spots, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3. Catch the weakest K-3 students early in the education process. Get them help sooner, not later, and be willing to compensate the educators for the after-hours time they spend with these students. Provide a dedicated special education teacher, as needed, to every classroom, rather than one for every four or five classrooms. Additionally, a well-trained aide should be a part of every classroom at least through 4th grade.

4. Get over the concept that all children are destined to go to a university. They aren’t. We need qualified, energetic, and dedicated professionals in the service industry. For whatever reason, America often attaches a negative stigma to students who want to be plumbers, electricians, and bricklayers. This is unfair. Personally, I could not perform any of those tasks—and I am very thankful to have skilled men and women I can pay for their work. (My plumber is a lady, by the way).

5. Stop using a business model in education. This means getting rid of NCLB and Race to the Top, cutting back on the high-stakes testing, and abandoning ideology like Lean Six Sigma, which was great for engineering and nuclear power plants, but lousy when applied to people.

6. Find a way to equalize education spending across the country. The system is broken when children in more impoverished states are given X dollars per pupil, while in wealthier states, the spending is 3X dollars, for example. Education, for whatever reason, usually gets the ‘cut’ when a state has budget issues. Education should be the last thing from which funds are ever cut.

7. Create a balance between national and local standards. No one is saying that children in South Carolina need a year-long course in the history of Idaho, or that you must teach physical science in 7th grade and life science in 8th grade. But have some broad national learning objectives for all subjects; then, allow states to determine how they would like to structure and teach those objectives, making them specific and applicable by and on the local level.

8. End social promotion—and by the same token, stop holding back children who are capable of working ahead in a given subject. Add some flexibility to the ‘age/grade’ system, such as letting the 2nd grader who is reading on a higher level spend ELA time in a 3rd grade classroom, or the 3rd grader who hasn’t yet mastered 2nd grade math concepts, but is doing well in other areas, drop back for just that one given subject.

9. Quit promoting bad teachers to administration just to get them out of the classroom, and end the practice of nepotism in promotion. A good educational administrator must first and foremost be a good teacher. Learning to lead and administrate is a skill acquired after several years in the classroom as a teacher.

10. Lower the student to teacher ratio, and regardless of the budget, do not eliminate art, music, PE/recess, and foreign languages from the curriculum. Overwhelming evidence shows that exercise, creativity, and studying a second language are good for the brain and the body.

11. Encourage faculty to engage in creative teaching techniques and collaborative teaching. Offer incentives to teachers who lead these endeavors.

12. The love of standardized testing is so deeply ingrained in U.S. culture, it will be impossible to eradicate it completely. But cut back on it. Consider a nationally-normed test given across a span of time, such as 2nd, 6th, and 8th grade, not every year.

13. Get parents deeply involved–in education. Not just in extracurricular activities, but in supporting their children getting homework done, reading their heads off, and being responsible (according to age and other logical expectations).

14. Finally—whatever new system is put into place—allow it time to thrive and adjust before claiming it doesn’t work or is ineffectual. The most touted educational system in the world, from Finland, took 30 years to perfect and had a lot of bumps along the way.

Plagiarism Sucks

Posted: 23/09/2014 in Rants and Raves

I sent this note out to students. About five across two classes have plagiarized. Not only were they unashamed when caught, they were unapologetic. They wouldn’t discuss it with me. One tried to ‘rewrite’ her work and resubmit it. They disgust me. I detest them. I’m ashamed to be in education right now because it is so fraught with bureaucracy and buzz words and ‘protecting’ the student. Fellow students, by the way, are just as angry–they are asking me, “I saw someone’s post, and clearly, they stole stuff off Wikipedia. Did you see that?” All I can say is, “Yes, and I followed the rules in my syllabus.” When I started teaching, it was about helping people grow and learn. It was about how could I best achieve that. Now, it’s all about ‘success rates’ and ‘documentation of critical thinking by giving students an assessment of how they ‘felt’ about the assessment.’ I technically can retire in 12 years. I am trying to figure out a way to shave that down a bit. I am starting to hate (yes, I know–strong word) and dread every day I work and every paper I have to read. I am a glorified tech support person who also gets some money to enable students, not teach them.

I made the religious notation because in their personal introductions, a huge percentage of my students commented how important their religion was to them; it’s not normally something I’d even mention. It sickens me that so many of them wear religious regalia and still cheat. One of my cheaters is a nurse. Does she cheat on other things, I wonder? I personally think plagiarism or cheating is despicable and wish anyone who did it would be summarily kicked out of college. However, there’s so much due process to protect students, they get a 0. That’s about all I can do that will actually stick unless they are repeat offenders. We couldn’t even get a file started to keep a record of repeat offenders in different classes. It’s insane.

Dear Students,

Being a student can be very challenging. It’s often made more difficult by life circumstances. I was in grad school and teaching when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died, at the same time I was going through a divorce. I stuck with school and finished, even though that semester wasn’t my best work. This past January, my father died after a long illness at the same time we were without power due to the ice storm. I was taking two programming classes–and withdrawing from them was the best option for me because I got too far behind to catch up. I kept my professors informed, but I took responsibility for my decisions–they were my choices.

However, one thing I HAVE NEVER, EVER done, in 10 years of school and through 3 degrees and 4 additional courses in math and computer science for personal enrichment and through a LOT OF “PERSONAL STUFF” is plagiarize. If you want examples and a definition, READ YOUR SYLLABUS. I was recently singled out and complimented by the dean of social sciences for my clear explanations on what plagiarism is and what consequences it incurs. Plagiarism is dishonest. It is lying. It is cheating. If you consider yourself religious in any way, think of it as immoral and wrong and the same as stealing. If you commit plagiarism, that’s the same as going into a store and stealing something another person has worked hard to make and produce. Let’s not mince words here.

I’ve taught 20 years. I’ve heard ALL the excuses (and they usually fall into one of these categories):

•    “I’m so busy, I just took a shortcut.”

•    “My personal life is hard right now–a lot is going on.”

•    “I didn’t know it was a problem. I thought it would be okay just this once.”

•    “I wasn’t clear on what you meant by how to cite sources in writing.”

I don’t care about your excuse. I don’t care about your reason. I do care about you not doing it–ever. Read the syllabus again. Ask your advisor. Ask tutors. I have had about five students commit some sort of plagiarism this semester. They have received the consequences. Possibly others have done it and not yet got caught–trust me, you will get caught at some point.

Make sure you do not copy and paste work from the internet. Make sure you cite your sources. Make sure you ASK if you are ever unsure if you are doing it right.

There is never an excuse. Never. I will make sure you are given the harshest consequences possible. I am aware and watching. Think about that before you are tempted to commit plagiarism.

Dr. Andromache

PS: Yes, I am quite furious. The thoughts of someone stealing another person’s writing and hard work is absolutely infuriating to me. I find it abominable behavior and have zero respect for anyone who would do this.