‘Twas Time to Think

I drove to Red Wing, Minnesota from Richmond, Virginia recently, and back. It was quite the drive: about 18 hours there, and maybe 27 hours home (took the long way back—via Brampton, Ontario). During this very long drive, I used a friend’s Audible account to listen to audiobooks, because I knew I’d get bored–and also deeply sick of searching for acceptable radio stations. (I got standards, y’all.) This worked well and it helped pass the time, which is what it was meant to do. But it also stopped me from thinking. It felt intensely passive at times, and I just didn’t like how that felt.

On a more recent trip, I traveled from Richmond to Neshanic good writerStation, New Jersey, then to Newton, Massachusetts, and then to Bowdoinham, Maine. This was a three-day trip, so none of the driving days were anywhere near as long as the three biggest driving days on my previous trip. There was also more to see, it being the very densely populated Northeast—and the drivers were more demented. Also, the radio stations were much better. But I’d still planned on spending the trip listening to a book. Somehow though, without actually planning it, I didn’t end up playing an audiobook.

The result? Deep thoughts. Ideas. Solutions. Alliterative blog titles. Wandering daydreams involving…well, never mind about that. I even recorded some notes with a voice recording app on my phone. The point is, my mind was active. I did the sort of thinking that can only be done with stretches of time and nothing else to occupy me—I mean, aside from traffic, construction, rain storms, and a weird mass of press in a small town in Pennsylvania. (Only my GPS knows why I drove to Neshanic Station via PA.)

Time sitting still or walking is arguably better for such thinking, as it’s less distracting, but this experience reminded me that I have had essential epiphanies while driving. I’ve come up with such valuable connections and solutions, while gently trying to tease apart knots in plots or a dissertation chapter, for example, that I’ve pulled over to write, which is saying a lot for me.

And of course, it reminded me of how little time I actually spend bored anymore, with nothing to do but think. My cell phone has saved me from having to think while waiting on lines, sitting in waiting rooms, waiting for events to start, trying to wake up or fall asleep, and thousands of other times. Yay?

I do sometimes wonder what I’ve failed to accomplish because of this great benefit of technology. One thing I do know for sure is that I won’t be listening to an audiobook on my trip home from Bowdoinham. Not that I think they’re evil, and not that I won’t ever listen to one in the future—they definitely serve a purpose—but I need more thinking time, and this will be a great opportunity to take some.


Ironically, the day after I wrote this, an artist friend (Kim-Lee Kho) posted this article to Facebook. Brilliant minds, and all that.

I <3 Worksheets: Or, How to Help Students Develop Research Questions More Effectively

It seems to be widely accepted among college professors that the use of worksheets in teaching is lazy teaching. What I’ve learned, however—especially in the last year—is that students love worksheets.

Well, maybe “love” is too strong a word, but I do know from powerful recent experience that worksheets are effective when designed well. I expect this is partly because students are very familiar with worksheets by the time they get to college. Hand them one, therefore, and they will generally do it, willingly. This is true whether I hand them out in class, or post them online to print and fill out.

The reason this is so important for me is that it made for a huge improvement in the first few weeks of my sophomore composition classes last semester. The class is built around a single research project that each student develops and works on throughout the course. Due to a change in curriculum a few years ago, we no long have the first few weeks of class to work on developing the research question. So in the past, I’ve given them instructions and asked them to work on it themselves for homework. The instructions consist of demos of Google Scholar, and how to do what I call “level one research” to help develop a reasonable research question, with examples.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

This is all well and good: the problem is, students don’t do it. They show back up in class, and few of them have done more than think about it in basic terms. Because the assignment wasn’t concrete enough (even though I specifically said, “come to class with a research question”), it became easy to ignore. I realized a year or so ago that a worksheet, with individual steps and spaces for them to fill out the results, would probably work better.

I was admittedly reluctant to actually put one together, because it felt childish—and they ought to just do the homework. But I finally decided that my reluctance was itself childish, because what matters is what works (and even my colleagues can’t make it through a faculty meeting without playing on their cell phones, so we’re in no position to judge). So, last winter break (“break”—lol), I made time to put something together.

And—WOW! Nearly everyone filled out the sheet in full, and I have never seen a group of students better prepared to discuss and refine research questions in class. It was a tremendous relief—probably for them as much as for me—and it simply worked. With slight revisions, the worksheet is linked below. I would be delighted to hear ideas about improvements—and meanwhile, I’m thinking about other ways I can use worksheets in class. I don’t see using tons of them, but a few more would probably be beneficial for all of us.

Happy teaching!

Level 1 Research Worksheet


Apps for productivity, learning, collection management, and other stuff

There are some apps I use on a regular basis that I completely love, and I thought it might be useful if I wrote about them. I will start with Lightning Bug, which is an app that plays sounds. It has a handy sleep timer, which I like to use while sounds of rain, thunder, and chanting (among others) lull me to sleep. I often have trouble sleeping at night, but it’s rare for me to make it through a full 30-minute cycle with this app and still be awake. There’s a nice array of sounds, so you can personalize it, and you can buy additional sound packs, too. (And if you like ambient noise while you work, check out Ambient Mixer on the web. I’m especially fond of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings environments. I find Arrival on the Shores of Valinor to be cheerful and energizing.)

There are lots of notepad-type apps out there, but I use and like Inkpad Notepad. Very easy to use and very simple, which is just what I wanted. I use it for making lists, taking notes during meetings and at conferences, and writing down late-night story ideas.

I’ve written previously about my love of Habitica, for forming habits. If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro Method, which I am, you might also like the Clockwork Tomato app, though I generally use the Marinara Timer on the web.

This is a Sengbusch custard glass Handi Pen inkwell. Isnt it gorgeous?

This is a Sengbusch custard glass Handi Pen inkwell. Isn’t it gorgeous?

For managing my stuff, I like the My Movies Pro 2 app, and the CLZ Books app. Both can scan bar codes, as well as allowing you to search for items manually, or enter the details yourself. They’ve been fantastic for helping to keep me from buying duplicates, though most of my books aren’t entered yet. It’s fairly time consuming to get everything in. For less common collections (I collect inkwells, mostly early 20th century), the Memento Database app is simply amazing. It helps if you understand something about database design, but a reasonably smart person can figure it out. I personally suggest keeping your database minimal. All three of these apps have limited free versions so you can try them out. Given the databases behind the first two, a charge is hardly unreasonable. And Memento isn’t very limited—I have yet to upgrade to the pay version, though I plan to.

For weather, the Weather Underground app can’t be beat. I enjoy using the Sky Map app for identifying stars and planets. And Alarm Clock Xtreme is the best alarm app I’ve found—necessary because my phone’s alarm clock app is dreadful. I really like having gently ascending music for my alarms, for example–great feature!

For studying Spanish, I use both Duolingo and Memrise. I think a mix of approaches is useful, though learning is SLOW for me. And I’ve been using Serial Reader as a way to make myself read some classics. It delivers a small chunk (8-18 minutes of reading time, on average) of your selected book(s) each day, which makes it possible to easily maintain a reading habit. (In related news, wow, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is depressing—but a great and important book, nonetheless.)

So, these are the apps I use most regularly. In some cases, I spent a lot of time looking at and sometimes testing the options. I hope you find them useful!


Getting Your Habits, Projects, and To-Dos Under Control through Gamification

I am officially obsessed with Habitica. Why? Because I’ve taken my vitamins almost every day for the 10+ months I’ve been a member. I’ve also been consistently studying Spanish every day, reading poetry, clearing up clutter, being more productive with my writing, exercising, eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting work done on my house—all at a much faster and more consistent rate than I would have without Habitica. How do I know that? Because, for example, I’ve been meaning to study Spanish consistently for years, but I never quite get to it. And I’ve found myself skipping vitamins for days and even weeks in the past.

I can also tell how much I’ve accomplished because I’m a level 90 warrior, a Beast Master, and I’ve gotten every bit of gear out of the enchanted armoire. Yeah! Woo! I think of Habitica as especially powerful for My avatar and current stats in Habitica.gamers, because the app/site works a lot like a video game, in some ways. It’s limited enough that it’s unlikely to become something you spend major time doing every day, but still engaging enough—through quests and challenges, guilds and parties, and developing your character—that it keeps you coming back. At least, it’s worked that way for me.

The challenges are a part of Habitica that I especially like. Each challenge is hosted in a guild, though there are many challenges hosted in the Tavern, which is essentially the general guild that everyone belongs to. You can join whichever challenges appeal to you, and the dailies, habits, and to-dos associated with it are placed in your task lists. They can focus on almost anything, including reading, fitness and diet, work or school productivity, gardening, hiking, various hobbies, pets, and even psychological or health issues, including addiction. If you win a challenge, you get a permanent notation in your User Achievements list—and sometimes you can win gems. If you respond well to deadlines (some challenges have specific time limits, while others are long-term), and if competition is your thing, these challenges can be especially powerful.

Sample daily activitiesMore generally, completing your various tasks each day earns you points, gold, and “drops,” which include pet eggs, potions for hatching them, and food for feeding them. If you’re in a party (a small group of people who can chat and participate in quests together), you also do damage to the target of your quest with every task completed. And with your party counting on you, not just to do damage to the baddie but to avoid doing damage to them, there’s plenty of incentive to stay focused and get your stuff done.

The site also gets the need to keep it fresh for experienced users. There are new pieces of equipment added monthly to the enchanted armoire; quarterly seasonal grand galas, which include special gear, potions, and other game features; and there are occasional world-wide bosses that everyone fights. Plus, if you subscribe (not required), you get some extra goodies.

One of my favorite things of all, though, is the ability to create challenges. Anyone can create them (read up on the details first, if you want to get started!), and if they’re created in a public guild, anyone can participate. Over the last few months, I’ve created challenges for hiking, donating blood, eating more fruits and veggies, home improvement projects, walking across bridges (bridges are cool!), and more. These challenges help motivate me, but they also motivate different people around the world to go out and do things. Right now, there are 67 people participating in my October Hike challenge, 120 people in the Donate Blood challenge, and 85 people are joining me in my efforts to eat more fruits and veggies. For some of the challenges, I assign people the task of reporting to the guild on how their challenge went. Responses are often thoughtful and fascinating—and sometimes inspiring. And they always leave me feeling like I’ve been able to help make a positive difference in someone’s life—which is really, really cool. Some examples:One of the quest bosses that you and your party can do battle with.

September hike challenge: I was so excited about this challenge. I love to hike, but sometimes have a hard time finding the motivation. But! this challenge helped me find a new favorite hiking spot, a trail in the state park close to my house that I haven’t ever had a chance to hike before. It’s about 5 miles, and follows a lake. So beautiful with fall approaching!!

I just completed the October hike with my fiancée and it was amazing. We were in Beaver Creek CO and hiked to a small beaver pond. It was serene- exactly what I needed with all of the Q4 pressure at work. There’s nothing like a good hike to clear the mind of negativity and provide some perspective about all the things there are to be grateful for. We live on a beautiful planet – do not let anyone tell you otherwise!

A second thank you to @Meriah! We’re halfway through October and I’ve eaten more fruits and veggies in two weeks than the last three months. But like, literally, I can NOT miss a daily and have found myself at the end of the day like “Oh crap, I need a veggie, what can I eat???” I’ve scarfed down more raw tomatoes with salt (yum!) than I care to admit. 😀 I’m super happy you’ll continue this next month. Thank you!

So, if this sounds like something that might work for you, come join us! The Newbie info on the Habitica Wiki is invaluable. And check out the Challenge…Accepted guild when you join—some of my favorite challenges are there!


Solving the gun problem

  1. First, let us all acknowledge that we have a gun problem. We can’t, of course—not unanimously. There are a lot of people who think what’s going on is fine. Maybe natural selection. If only all those people had been armed, they could have defended themselves—right? Except that police officers are killed all the time, and they’re armed. Look at Dallas, for example. (It’s worth noting that the number of LEOs killed in the line of duty has been lower in the last few years, which is great news. But most people can agree that we have a gun problem: There are too many people with guns who simply shouldn’t have them.
  2. So, what do we do about it? Pass federal laws restricting certain people from owning guns. We already do this, of course. Felons, undocumented immigrants, those committed to mental institutions, and anyone dishonorably discharged from the military, for example, can’t legally own guns. But the list ought to be longer.
  3. The list of people who shouldn’t have guns, in my opinion:
    1. People who are severely mentally ill. Not someone who’s being treated for anxiety or mild depression or getting treatment to help them cope with a tragedy, for example, though the question of whether to take guns from people who may be suicidal is worth asking. I’m mainly concerned in this list with keeping guns away from people who kill other By mentally ill, I’m including the Virginia Tech shooter, the Colorado theater shooter, the Newtown shooter, and the mother in Texas who shot her two daughters to hurt her husband. (Using their names helps no one, and encourages others to commit similar crimes, so I’m not going to do it.) All of these people showed clear signs that they were a threat, and authorities of various sorts were aware of them but did, or could do, nothing.
    2. People with convictions for violent crimes of any kind.
    3. People with restraining orders against them.newtown-victims
    4. People who have publicly threatened to kill anyone, including elected officials. I’m looking at you, Ted Nugent—but also the vast hordes on Twitter and Facebook who plausibly threaten others. This is a complicated one, I freely admit, because of that whole first amendment thing, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that people who proclaim their intent to kill actually mean it, and should be stopped, as far as is possible. Asking people to stop publicly threatening others if they want to keep their guns is hardly a huge burden.
    5. People who have demonstrated that they can’t handle handguns safely, including anyone caught engaging in celebratory gunfire (which has been known to kill people), anyone who’s ever shot themselves “accidentally”—the proper term is “negligently”–anyone who’s ever shot someone else negligently, and anyone who has allowed easy access to their firearms to someone else, resulting in injury. This includes people who allow small children access to their guns, resulting in death and injury.
    6. And there should be a way for people with anger issues and antisocial personality problems (I’m not a professional, so there are probably better terms) to be referred for counseling and evaluation for inclusion on the list. I’m thinking here of people receiving warnings, “counseling,” and possible firing at work for behavioral issues, which can turn into workplace shootings. The man who killed a Virginia newscaster and her cameraman is an example, as well as a plethora of others.
    7. People who violate hunting laws that involve firearms.
    8. What am I missing? Should people with drug convictions be on this list? DUIs? Trespassing and property crimes? Nonviolent hate crimes? What about the guy at work who tells racist or sexist or homophobic jokes? Where should the line be drawn?
  4. It is possible that some of the above people (though by no means all of them) could have their firearms access rights returned after an extensive waiting period, application process, and retraining regimen. And they should be on a 1-strike probationary status permanently. People who make “minor” mistakes could potentially have their firearms rights removed for a year (or some other period), as well.
  5. In order to make this practical, we need a national database to record and track all of these people. There will also need to be an appeal process. Realistically, every process is prone to error, so there should be a way for people to get their weapons and weapons rights back if they were taken unfairly.
  6. Along with this national database, some other new laws should be implemented. According to a study recently published in The Lancet, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)01026-0, there are state-level laws that are highly effective in reducing homicides committed with firearms. According to the press release about the study http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/bumc-bsi030916.php (which I’m using because it’s much more clearly phrased): “Laws requiring firearm identification through ballistic imprinting or microstamping were found to reduce the projected mortality risk by 84 percent; ammunition background checks, by 82 percent; and universal background checks for all gun purchases, by 61 percent.” The study also identified several laws that seem to increase homicides with firearms, including the stand-your-ground laws. Some folks will argue that the study is limited, and of course that’s true. Every study is limited. But it’s hard to argue against any of these three laws—and it seems readily apparent that they will help control the flow of guns and ammunition to the people who shouldn’t have them. There simply isn’t a good argument against any of these laws. And of course, stand-your-ground laws should be repealed as well.
  7. There are other possibilities and other ideas that are worth looking into, such as adding education and training requirements for all people who own guns, and possibly licensing as well. But these five changes at the federal level (the database and three laws in #5, plus eliminating stand your ground laws) would make a real difference in reducing firearm-related shootings, and none of them involve taking guns away from stable, law-abiding citizens. So, how about if we start here and see how much progress we can make—and how many lives we can save?

Here’s the thing about the police…

I have interacted with a lot of police officers over the years, both as a citizen and through my work as a private investigator. Most of the police I have interacted with were highly professional and competent; a very small percentage were not. In light of recent (and not-so-recent) events, I decided to put some of my thoughts in writing.


Being a police officer is a difficult job for a lot of reasons. It’s dangerous, sometimes unappreciated, and it can be very stressful. At the same time, it’s also a great job, because police officers get to help people, have a lot of variety in their work, and it’s an exciting career. Part of the overall package is that it is absolutely essential for police officers to have a high standard of professionalism, and they must be calm in emergency situations.

What this means is that, even when someone is screaming at them, cursing them, slamming them with fists or a bag, trying to hurt themselves, and so on, police officers still need to be calm, professional, and do their best to de-escalate the situation. Because IT’S THEIR JOB. Their job isn’t to punish, to establish dominance, or to protect themselves at all costs. Their job is to stay calm, be Jon Stewart quoterespectful, and try as hard as they can to resolve every single encounter peacefully.

If an officer is being shot at, he or she can absolutely return fire. If someone is holding a knife to the throat of a spouse or child, the officer may have no choice but to kill the person in question, if they can’t disarm that person otherwise. If someone they believe committed a crime is running away, it is the responsibility of the police to chase them, and do their best to stop them without harm.

However, there have, obviously, been a lot of cases in the news lately where police have used lethal force to stop people (very often black people) who were unarmed, or not holding a weapon or threatening anyone, or who had toy guns. Some of these cases are unclear, but a great many others involved clear instances of police officers escalating situations, using force where none was called for, more force than was needed, shooting at the mere sight of something that looked like a gun, or otherwise acting inappropriately. These killings are wrong. They are criminal.

A lot of people will question the actions of the person who was killed. Some suggest the person should have been more respectful, or more compliant. No. Just NO. Being disrespectful isn’t a capital offense in this country—and even if it were, it’s not the officer’s job or right to execute someone for being disrespectful. Officers don’t have a right to shoot or choke or otherwise harm someone because they don’t instantly and unquestioningly comply with demands, either. What they do—what they are supposed to do—is calmly, coolly work through it. And if they can’t do that, they should not be police officers.

More, it’s the duty of police officers to protect the public—not just from criminals, but from police officers who don’t belong on the job. If they are willing to protect officers they know are racist, inappropriately aggressive, and even violent, they are betraying every bit of their job, their community, and their own honor. And we, the people, should do whatever we can to stop it—while supporting the police officers that do their very difficult job responsibly and professionally.


Tolstoy is a Pig

There was something that bothered me about War and Peace that was obscured for me, somehow, by all of the other things I wrote about previously. There is certainly a lot one could say about War and Peace, so that’s not really surprising. And this one thing: it’s something that’s probably pretty easy to simply ignore, because the character doesn’t matter very much. I know this is true because Tolstoy told me so, in a variety of ways. The only problem is, he’s wrong. And he’s also a pig for saying it.

The character in question is Sónya Rostova–a poor, orphaned girl who is raised alongside her cousins Natasha and Nikolai Rostova, who are two of the main characters. In part because they were raised together, Sónya and Nikolai fall in love. It seems, for a while, as if Tolstoy means for them to get together—though, in fairness, it’s clear from the start that Nikolai’s parents have other ideas. Still, Sónya has hope. Over the course of the novel, Sónya has other opportunities to marry, but she refuses them, remaining true to Nikolai. He, on the other hand…well, his father is terrible with money, and marrying Sónya would be financially inconvenient. Plus, you know, boys will be boys. (Tolstoy is a pig.)

Sonya and Nikolai, from the BBC production of War and Peace.

Sonya and Nikolai, from the BBC production of War and Peace.

While it didn’t strike me on first read, going back I realized that from her first introduction, Tolstoy describes Sónya as being like an animal: “By the grace of her movements, by the softness and flexibility of her small limbs, and by a certain coyness and reserve of manner, she reminded one of a pretty, half-grown kitten which promises to become a beautiful little cat.” And he continues the comparison. Poor Sónya also does quite a lot of crying, but she is, after all, only fifteen, and her true love is going off to war. Still, not long after this, Tolstoy passes judgement via Natasha and Nikolai’s younger brother: “You [girls] are all blubberers and understand nothing.”

In the interests of avoiding boring the both of us—and because I don’t want to do a whole lot of re-reading—I’m going to jump to the part in the second epilogue that annoys and offends me the most. In the title of that chapter, Tolstoy says simply: “Sónya a sterile flower.” Of course, she is no such thing—he has merely chosen to portray her in this manner. This is in part, I believe, because she was too insignificant (being poor) to bother disposing of properly; in part because she was so weak as to wait for Nikolai, even knowing their union was unlikely, and with evidence that Nikolai wasn’t being faithful; and in part because Tolstoy didn’t much seem to respect any of his female characters.

But, you know, it’s not Tolstoy’s fault. Natasha says, as if standing in for Tolstoy: “Formerly I very much wanted Nicholas to marry her, but I always had a sort of presentiment that it would not come off. She is a sterile flower, you know.” Precisely nothing is presented to explain or support this comment. It seems merely to be a sort of excuse for deciding that it’s acceptable for Nikolai to have thrown her over for another woman simply because she had money. But, cheer up—it’s OK! “Sometimes I think she doesn’t feel it as you or I would.” Why? Because she’s not really human—she’s just a sterile flower, of no use to anyone except to be pretty.My dogs have been trained to attack male chauvinist pigs such as you...Tolstoy/

Countess Mary (now Natasha’s sister in law—Nikolai’s wife) agrees with Natasha: “It really seemed that Sónya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower.” Perhaps the repetition in the mouth of a character known for her kindness and Christian morals is expected to make the comparison seem more valid, or less distasteful. It doesn’t. To emphasize Sónya’s inhuman, unfeeling nature, Mary further reflects: “She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home. She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to render the small services for which she had a gift.” At least Tolstoy vaguely recognizes some of this injustice, noting that “all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude,” but that’s hardly redeeming. He seems to find it unfortunate, but not actually a problem or a tragedy.

There is more that can be said on this subject, but really, it’s too depressing. Poor Sónya is dehumanized, and we see yet again that wealth makes right, and a lack of wealth, regardless of one’s upbringing or inherent value, makes one truly valueless—unappreciated and even unwanted by those whom one serves with love. And of course, Sónya continued to serve the family diligently, in part because she simply had nowhere else to go. Her situation guaranteed that she would never be loved or married or have children of her own. And as Tolstoy himself notes, she would never be appreciated during her life—or, probably, remembered long after it.

In conclusion: Tolstoy is a pig.



War and Peace and Why I Wish I Hadn’t Read It

I wanted to read a good, literary, and long novel this past winter break. Sort of a palate cleanser after reading large numbers of 12ish-page student papers of varying (though sometimes excellent and rarely terrible) quality. Because I am an idiot, I selected War and Peace.

My friends, the book is long. And not merely long–it is also slow, repetitive, meandering, digressive, didactic, and in dire need of a vigorous edit. To make matters worse, the ebook copy I read was riddled with typos. Granted it was free, but a majority of the typos could have been located with a simple spell check. There is simply no excuse for such shoddy material being released online. While it was rarely more than annoying, it certainly left me thinking less of Simon & Schuster for putting their name on it. Another issue was that the editor saw fit to mine the footnotes with spoilers. That is the subject for another day’s (profanity-laced) rant.

The book is a rather odd mix of epic, soap opera, war story, historical analysis, and ramble. I learned a lot about an era of history I don’t know much about, albeit only a brief slice of it (the very early 1800s, including the French invasion of Russia in 1812). I gained some limited perspective on Russian society of that era, though the lives of the serfs–essentially slaves–aren’t given much consideration. (Like Jane Austen’s novels, for example, they aren’t meant to provide a view of the whole of society, though Tolstoy had more of an opportunity to see a wider swath of it than Austen did.)

Ridiculous Tolstoy quote: easy to say if you have money and freedom.

Ridiculous Tolstoy quote: easy to say if you have money and freedom.

Based on what little he did say about them, Tolstoy seemed to see the serfs as inherently inferior, and in need of management in the same way that cattle or estates need management. Up to a point–for example, if one sees serfs as employees–there’s some validity, but Tolstoy clearly approves heartily of the actions of one character who very tightly manages their personal lives as well. This character’s stern (and sometimes violent) management of his serfs causes them to respect him to the point that, Tolstoy says, “serfs from neighboring estates came to beg him to buy them.” This is no more than a fantasy justifying harsh treatment of enslaved people. Tolstoy was of his time, of course, but I would have preferred him to be a bit more enlightened. (The question of how much one can reasonably complain about this is an enormous one that I won’t try to tackle.)

The military episodes, of which there are many, have the sort of verisimilitude that Tolstoy’s own military experience would be expected to provide–including one of the more horrifying, distinctive, and powerful deaths in combat that I’ve read. (Because I’m not an ass, unlike a certain editor who shall remain nameless, I’m not naming names.) Tolstoy’s attitudes about war are quite clear: “war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous.” Tolstoy’s understanding of the difficulties of communication and planning, in the absence of technology, are also incredibly useful—though not terribly relevant any longer. However, he focused so deeply and repeatedly upon his insistence of the chaotic and leaderless nature of war that it seemed more like a mania, in the end, than a carefully-reasoned and persuasive argument.

With respect to the characters…I didn’t find many of the people very likeable. The main female character is absurdly spoiled and coddled, leading to awful, selfish behavior. The main male character is genuinely dreadful for much of the novel, and even during his period of rehabilitation, he simply ignores a man about to be killed because it’s awkward for him. This is apparently OK because the man is a peasant, though he claims to care about him.

Few of the characters seem well suited to making the children they made, or raising them in any way that is likely to turn out well. As for the other characters and their overlapping stories, some were surely compelling. If you’re the sort of person who can simply skip the boring bits (I am not), I can see it appealing to fans of Downton Abbey, or of the novels of Austen, the Brontes, and Trollope. All things considered, though, I wouldn’t actually encourage anyone to read it. There is better stuff out there, by far, IMO.

The tome is ended with epilogues: three of them. Why? Well, the first is a seven-years-later segment that brings us up to date on Russia and, more importantly, the lives, loves, offspring, and evolving characters of the characters, now that they are somewhat older and not at war—for the moment. It’s entertaining, though it leaves many questions and frustrations. It’s not happily-ever-after, by any means, though it seems like Trollope’s conception of it. I felt sorry for many of the characters, and wished others would pull their heads out of their butts.

France's retreat from Russia, by W. Kossak.

France’s retreat from Russia, by W. Kossak.

The second epilogue…dear Lord, it took me so long to get through the second epilogue. It’s so dreadfully dull and repetitive, and some if it is nonsense. For example: “What causes historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the collective will of the people transferred to one person. Under what condition is the will of the people delegated to one person? On condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power: in other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.” And also: “If any single action is due to free will, then not a single historical law can exist, nor any conception of historical events.” Setting aside the irony of him referring to “the whole people,” which he clearly doesn’t mean, what?

Tolstoy also wants to claim that history should be treated as a science, and that if the laws and influences determining human actions were known fully, we could abandon our foolish notions of free will. At least, I think he’s saying that. He’s contradictory at times. He does acknowledge that we cannot prove that we have free will, which seems true enough. But the rest…So painful. Don’t read epilogue two.

The third consists of Tolstoy discussing the book. He says: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” I think it’s difficult to argue that it’s not a historical novel—and he’s probably not the best person to judge, in any case. Tolstoy also discusses the very different needs and methods of historians and “artists”–meaning novelists. This section would, I think, be interesting for both of those types of people to read. He also, rather painfully, confirms what I noted before about his apparent attitudes about serfs. He thinks the tales of the horrors of the serf system are overblown. Sigh. Dear Tolstoy, I rather doubt it. After all, who wrote the materials you used for research? The serfs, or the people who owned them? Might those people have been a teensy bit biased? Yes. Yes, they were.

Historical note: serfdom was abolished in 1861, War and Peace was initially published in 1869, and Tolstoy lived until 1910, so he lived to see a great deal of change. He changed considerably, himself, over the years, though that’s a subject for another day and another author.

All that said: MAN, I’m glad it’s over. I have since read, among other books, Andy Weir’s The Martian. It kicked butt—check it out!



Jury Duty, Sept 18, 2015, Richmond City Circuit Court. Interesting in Parts.

Super fun! Getting to the courthouse Friday morning was a little more complicated than usual because of the massive international bike race extravaganza that began with opening ceremonies last night. Roads were closed and people were driving like loonies. Neither of those things are very unusual for Richmond, alas.

We waited in a large holding pen in the basement of the courthouse for a while. We’d been told we could bring books, but no devices, of course. I was amazed at how many people—maybe a quarter of the 28ish people there?—sat and gazed into space rather than read. There was even a table full of magazines, but not many people read them.

There was an orientation video during which the former chief justice of Virginia repeatedly referred to us as jurors, pronouncing it jur-AHRs. Very weird/annoying. (Later, the judge referred to motorcycles as motorsickels. Maybe they were just doing it to mess with us.) The production values and audio quality of the video were atrocious. The commonwealth should be ashamed.

When they did roll call, I was surprised to hear that maybe 20% of the people who were supposed to be there didn’t show up. I wonder what happens to them. Probably not much. Of the names called, I recognized one, but assumed it was a coincidence. A little later, I realized that it wasn’t. I’ve only lived in Richmond for about 4 years total, and I don’t know that many people who live in the city. What are the odds? Anyway, we were able to talk for a while—longer than we ever did when we worked together a few years back. It was really nice. (We were also almost the only people who talked that day. Very quiet crowd.)

Eventually, they herded us upstairs, cramming us into three elevators. We sat and waited in another courtroom until they were ready for us, then moved to the rear of the other courtroom. Thirteen of us were randomly selected to be part of the jury pool. I was number 11. YAY. (I had plans—otherwise I’d have been thrilled.)

We finally learned that it was a civil trial. The judge gave us a summary of the case, which surprised me, and told us the defendant was a John Doe. They didn’t explain it very well, but basically if you want to be anonymous in a civil trial in Virginia, you can be. This is generally done when someone is a public figure. This case involved a man riding on a Harley Davidson motorcycle who claims he was run off the road by a man in an SUV. I have decided that the defendant was Chris Brown (based on no evidence at all) and that he’s guilty. 😉

Anyway, the judge asked a bunch of questions. Then the plaintiff’s lawyer did. Both lawyers agreed to excuse two people at some early stage, and the judge agreed to remove and replace them with extra people from the jury pool. Both people said they had experience with motorcycles and how irresponsible people are when driving around them, and didn’t think they could be impartial, plus they wanted the rest of the day off to screw around. (That last part was unstated, but pretty clear.)

The lawyer asked a bunch more questions, mostly about who’d been in accidents, who had been parties in lawsuits, if any of us had ever used his firm, etc. He also asked about people with medical and legal experience. The friend I spoke with and I both have experience with the legal profession (me as a PI). He asked what kind of work I did—domestic, insurance—and he paused for me to answer. I said: “No domestic, but just about everything else.” He said, “No domestic? Good for you.” “Yes, yes it is,” I said. :-)

Then the defendant’s attorney asked some questions, though he seemed more interested in talking about the case. Seemed a little over the line a couple of times, but no one objected. They also didn’t say much about the John Doe thing, but he promised they’d explain more later. Two people objected strongly to the dude not being there. I also had issues with it—I imagine most of us did—but with an open mind. (Unless it was Chris Brown.)

Then the lawyers SLOWLY went back and forth, apparently agonizing (I wondered if some of that was theater) over the list of names, and each attorney picked three people (alternating) to excuse. I and my friend, who has a JD, were both excused. I was doing my happy dance on the inside, but managed to avoid high fiving anyone. One of the people who’d objected to the John Doe thing—a man who seemed pretty cantankerous—was also excused.

They had us sit and wait a while longer, and then sent us back downstairs…where we waited a little longer. While we waited, I noticed a woman reading a book in the back that I hadn’t noticed before: Fifty Shades of Gray. Now, setting aside issues of quality (I try not to judge, with varying degrees of success), I truly can’t imagine reading that book in a public place, let alone a courthouse. But hey, at least she was reading.

They finally gave us parking vouchers and sent us on our way—along with instructions to call the following Thursday to see if we need to report. We apparently all have 4 Fridays where we might need to serve. Here’s hoping for something more exciting next time, if they ask us to come in (though I expect being excused will be a matter of course, for me).

Update: I forgot to mention a few things that I found interesting. The plaintiff’s attorney said his only witness would be the plaintiff, and asked us if any of us would be unable (don’t remember the exact wording) to vote in favor of his client. He also noted that the state trooper who did the accident investigation might be testifying for the defense (I assume he was–he was present, though not in the courtroom during jury selection), and asked if we would assume the trooper was necessarily right–or if we’d accept the word of the trooper over that of his client. No one raised their hand at that, which surprised me a bit. Though a lot of people are hostile to law enforcement these days, and especially to troopers (speeding tickets), the trooper has no real horse in the race. (That’s arguable, to some extent, but still…) And troopers are supposedly experts in accident reconstruction. The plaintiff had a pretty tough sell, it looked like to me. Unless it was Chris Brown involved, anyway. :-)


The Joy of Assessment

The classes I teach—primarily sophomore comp—call for a ton of assessment via written assignments, most with significant (or, when the work is excellent, minimal) written feedback. I typically type my responses into blackboard. This way, students get feedback individually, as quicly as possible—and they don’t face the challenge of having to read my handwriting. I also offer in-class feedback on some work, and feedback orally during meetings in my office. It amazes me how often I have to tell them to take notes. It amazes me even more how often they elect not to make the changes I suggest.

The biggest challenge I face is the time it takes to respond to everything effectively. I have tweaked my approach over the years, offering more feedback on assignments that need to be really well done in order to ensure the following assignments have a solid foundation (for example, research questions, claims, outlines) and less on those assignments that students won’t be revisiting (like a synthesis assignment—unless it’s done incorrectly). Some colleagues have students do a form of self-assessment or peer assessment, but I haven’t given that much thought as yet. I’m dubious as to the value of it, though I’m interested in learning more.

We also have what we refer to as Unit 4—Argument in Translation. We have students take some aspect of the argument in their 11+ page paper (usually not all of it) and translate it into a different medium, such as infographic, video, Prezi, etc. This is quite a valuable exercise, though we don’t have time to explore it in the ways I would like. That means the grading is also fairly straightforward. If it’s good (it usually is) they get full points. If it’s clear they half-assed it, or it’s riddled with errors, they get less.

Something I have been wanting to try for a while now is one of those systems that lets you show a question on the screen and have students individually pick the correct answer—and then showing results on screen. In the olden days (2+ years ago), we would use clickers for that; nowadays, we can use students’ laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. I finally found the time and the impetus this summer. I wanted to deliver an online quiz for my students about the correct use of semicolons, colons, brackets, parentheses, ellipses, em dashes, and en dashes: advanced punctuation of the sort every college graduate ought to know, but (almost) no one actually teaches.

Finding an effective tool was no small task, especially because I needed separate tools for my in-person and online classes. Different approaches to the teaching part, too. What I tried with my online class was to assign them to read specific sections in our manual (short sections!), and then take the test through Blackboard. Technologically, this worked fine, and it fed the answers straight into the gradebook, which was nice. The scores, though? OUCH! Sigh.

For the in-person class, I talked them through all of the punctuation rules, and then used Socrative. I will let you find it and explore it if you’re interested in details, but I will note that it’s not terribly attractive or snazzy, and you have to pay if you have more than X students (25, maybe? I had less.). We also had some technical issues: one student, in particular, had repeated problems with entering her answers. I was able to look at her screen, and it was not user error. Possibly her laptop, though?

But, here’s the really cool thing: they liked it. Said it was fun. I suggested we stop halfway through (it was time-consuming as we discussed all of the answers where there seemed to be some real confusion), and they wanted to keep going. So weird! But YAY. The final screen shows which students had the highest scores, too, so I could award them extra credit. It was a great experience all-around.

What I will do differently next time for the in-person students is to use the same ol’ worksheet on the day I teach them about punctuation, and then use Socrative (or something similar) later in the semester, with advance notice, for an in-class quiz. And I think I’ll offer extra credit for anyone who scores above a 90, as added incentive.

For the online students? Hmmm. Maybe if I build a tool that walks them through the rules with examples and quick quizzes, followed by a longer quiz. But really, who has time for that? Another sigh. Maybe next summer, when I’m “off.”