an elephant with balloons

One of my goals for this year is to finish projects that I had started but had to put aside for one reason or another (usually health related). This cross-stitch of an elephant holding a bunch of balloons is the first that I completed this year, with a little help from the recipient’s mother.

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Photo taken by Megan Berryman.

When my friend Megan announced that she was going to decorate her baby daughter’s room with the theme of balloons, I immediately thought of the idea of using buttons for balloons.

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Photo taken by Megan Berryman.

The buttons I sourced from a local ‘scraps’ craft store, which literally sells scraps of fabric, ends of paint, bits and bobs, and an assortment of random things. Inside it’s like wandering around an old attic, happening upon just that unusual item you can use for a crafting project. I wanted a variety of buttons and I got a paper bag full for 25 cents. The remaining supplies I got from Hobby Lobby. Another friend of mine helped refresh my memory for how to sew on a button and do a simple stitch to use for the strings and elephant. (I am not confident with needle and thread by any means, but such are the things I do for friends.)

I added the elephant for a touch of whimsy. I like for the gifts I give to children to encourage a creative imagination. Because the buttons already created a 3D element, I let the ends of the strings hang loose. Megan put on the finishing touches by filling in the elephant with fabric paint and using her sewing machine to hem the edges of the fabric.

Despite being more than a year ‘late’, I’m pleased that both Megan and little A. like the elephant holding balloons.

what causes academic dishonesty?

This week I have had to investigate and speak with several students about academic dishonesty issues in their most recent assignment.

The majority of the problems are lack of appropriate citations, ‘patchwriting’ (or incomplete paraphrasing), including direct quotations without indicating that they are quotations, and similar infractions. As a teacher/librarian, I am frustrated because I thought I covered how to cite and how to use sources earlier in the semester. How is it that nearly a third of the class made these mistakes?

It’s easy to think that these students are willfully stealing others’ work and hoping that they won’t get caught. From my experience, however, many students don’t seem to understand fully that what they are doing is theft. So what’s going on here?

There are several contributing factors: for one, the assignment was due shortly after midterms, so many of the students confessed that they were sloppy with their sources out of a combination of haste and laziness. The issue here is time management and organization. Another factor is that this particular class has been a challenge to keep engaged in the classroom, and it is very likely that my lessons on using sources simply didn’t sink in or the students weren’t paying attention.

A third contributing factor is, perhaps, the influence that sharing on social media is having on our society. Not only is it easy to do an image search or find something written on almost anything on the Internet, it is now extremely easy to ‘share’ what we find with our various online networks. All you have to do is click one of the various ‘share’ buttons on nearly any website or on any post on the different social media platforms. We share and share and share and never once think about amending our ‘shared’ posts with a citation indicating the source of the image or article it is that we are sharing. (Well, I do. But even I don’t always present my ‘citation’ in strict MLA or APA style.)

One of the implications of this feature of our online lives is the blurring of our understanding of intellectual property.

Anything we see or hear we can share with others. We expect information of all kinds, from music to articles to pictures to videos, to be easily accessible and free (or cheap). Because most of it is accessed through a screen that we own (a smartphone, tablet, or computer), whenever we want it, it’s possible that we feel like the material we are consuming is already ‘ours’. It’s just there, floating in the ether, waiting for us to consume it. As a result, it’s easy to forget that someone else made that material, and, as such, that someone should benefit from our consumption of their work. At the very least, that person should receive credit for what they have created.

So that is an added challenge to teaching information literacy and academic integrity: teaching also the relevance and importance of intellectual property.

Another contributing factor to the problem of academic dishonesty is that students misunderstand the purpose of assignments and assessment.

Too often students are focused on getting the ‘right’ answers to get ‘good grades’ rather than mastering concepts.

When writing an essay, students get distracted by wanting to appear like they know the content of their essay topic, whereas I am more interested in their methodology and whether they have understood the strategies we discussed about crafting an argument. A student writing about suicide prevention will copy and paste from a Psychology Today article to make it look like she knows the subject; I want to know if she knows how to appropriately and effectively use sources and is capable of critical thinking. What the student thinks is important is often at cross purposes with the purpose of the assignment.

So the issues here are not just underdeveloped information literacy skills, but also:

  • Underdeveloped time management and organization skills;
  • A lack of understanding of the concept of intellectual property;
  • A misunderstanding of the purpose of the assignments, and, perhaps, of (higher) education in general.

Realizing this will help me to better prepare for next semester as I know I will need to adjust and create lesson plans to address these issues. The responsibilities of a college writing instructor are much more than simply teaching how to write an essay; or rather, writing an essay involves much more than simply putting words on paper — but that’s another post entirely.

D&D 5e: Maya d’Lyrandar

As mentioned in a previous post, my monthly gaming group has started a campaign in the D&D setting Eberron.

Maya Zandos d’Lyrandar
Bard Class (airship captain extraordinaire!)

D&D Maya mini 2

Maya’s mini, painted by our other GM (who also painted Tess), and her dragonmark-themed dice.*

Maya is the daughter of Admiral Valanthe d’Lyrandar and heir to the dragonmarked House Lyrandar. Despite her early years and training in Stormhome, she calls the Lhazaar Principalities her home: Admiral Valanthe established a significant Lyrandar enclave in the pirate confederation due to the growing tension between herself and her twin, the House Baron Esravash.

She is captain of the airship Falling Skies, which was taken during the Last War. Maya was promoted from Midshipman Zandos to Captain Zandos a decade before her time by seizing, as she calls it, an opportunity. Airships are powered by bound elementals and when a ship is taken as a prize in battle and the crew subdued, the new presumptive captain must obtain the cooperation of the elemental in order to take control of the ship. Standard procedure allows the first lieutenant priority, and thus win a promotion and his first ship. But the elemental of Falling Skies wouldn’t talk to the first lieutenant, nor to the second lieutenant. As the captain and lieutenants discussed what to do next — they were considering towing the ship back to the closest Lyrandar enclave to let other high ranking lieutenants have a go — one of the midshipmen slipped over to the dragonshard at the helm, placed her hand on it, and asked the elemental its name. ‘Aeris,’ it answered with surprise. ‘Excellent,’ said the midshipman, ‘My name is Maya. What was your last captain like?’ Before the officers could intervene, Maya had established a rapport with the elemental and it would talk to no other. While some in the House were disgruntled at this turn of events, others noted the daring that is admired in House Lyrandar leaders.

One of Maya’s philosophies is: Good things come to those who seize opportunities.

Eberron - Rinmaru Mega Fantasy - Maya 3bAfter the cataclysm of the Mourning ended the War, Maya transported cargo and engaged in privateering — seizing opportunities — as well as attending society functions whenever she was in port. For both her status and her winning personality, Maya always gets invited to the best parties. It was at these parties that Maya came to know Lady Ceana d’Cannith, heir to House Cannith; Claire Loreden, the famous fencer-at-law; and Jett Keshi, an enigmatic Brelander spy. These four, along with Maya’s ship engineer, Jerrick Torrn of House Tharashk, and the gnomes Gnor and Rong, agreed to open their own inquisitive firm in Sharn. After a mishap with the Prime Minister’s cousin, however, they relocated to Stormreach in Xen’drik and took the name Skyfall Inquiries, Ltd.

Another of her philosophies is:  It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.**

mehndi dragonmark

Her mark looks like blue mehndi.

The dragonmarked House Lyrandar bears the Mark of Storm and Maya’s dragonmark covers the right side of her face, neck, and the entirety of her right arm. With this mark she can fly or pilot an airship or elemental galleon, and (through further training?) some weather working abilities. The Eberron setting was created for the earlier editions of D&D, but hasn’t been released for 5e, the system we are using. Thus, we are translating the Eberron setting into the new system, which means we’re still figuring out how the dragonmarks function practically. I plan to focus on weather-related spells when leveling up.

Eberron partyFor this campaign, our group held a pre-session party-making party to introduce our characters to each other and establish how they know each other and came to be working together for Skyfall Inquiries. We used the Fate Core system to create the character connections: using index cards, we wrote our characters’ names, tag lines, and the beginning of our characters’ first post-war adventure. Then we passed the cards around and added how our characters had supporting roles in those adventures. In this way we determined how Jerrick became engineer on Maya’s ship; that Maya, Jett, Ceana, and Claire frequented many of the same dinner parties; how Claire and Jerrick came to be mixed up with Gnor the Gnome (and his psychic friend, Rong); and so on. Then the GM led us in a pure role-playing session (no dice or character sheets) that served as the prologue to our first session.

These activities, combined with the group email in which we tossed the incident with the Prime Minister’s cousin back and forth round-robin style and the emails I’ve exchanged with the GM establishing the changes to House Lyrandar, have resulted in me as a player feeling more confident about both this new setting and my character. I’m also proud that I successfully built my character sheet on my own and needed only minor corrections. Needless to say, I’m excited to play my super charismatic half-elf bard airship captain who has a weakness for exotic jewelry, especially if it already belongs to someone else…


* Isn’t she marvellous? She even has a dragonmark. He also replaced the gun in her right hand with a sword. All of the minis he’s painted for this campaign are fantastic.

** I love that this quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Female admirals FTW.

Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.

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This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.


* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.

Teach your cat to walk on a leash

When I adopted Willow, I had already decided that she would be an indoor-only cat. I had no yard or garden of my own to be Willow’s territory and my apartment complex is on a busy road near an even busier interstate highway. An indoor cat is a healthy cat, and cheaper with fewer vet bills to consider.

But my flat is also very small, and I knew that my indoor/outdoor cats of the past loved the fresh air, smells, bugs, and birds that they could watch while outside. I knew that if I started early enough (and Willow seemed both brave and clever enough for me to try) I could train her to walk on a leash.

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Benefits of teaching your cat to walk on a leash:

  • Your cat gets the mental stimulation that comes from being outside.
  • Because the outside time is supervised, you know what your cat is or is not getting into; also, your cat won’t be able to kill songbirds in your area.
  • Your cat will know the smells and surroundings around your home. If she ever gets outside on her own, she will know where Home is.
  • Your neighbors will see you and your cat together. Again, if your cat gets outside on her own, your neighbors will know she belongs to you.
  • Vet visits are easier because you can let your cat out of the carrier and still have control of your pet.
  • Same thing when travelling: When making a pit stop, you can let the cat out of the carrier to stretch her legs without worrying about her escaping — just keep hold of that leash!
  • Your cat will enjoy herself and you will be happy knowing that she is happy!

Like any type of training you do with cats, or other animals, you need patience. Willow was about six months’ old when I trained her to wear a harness, and though she took to it quickly, I didn’t begin by wrestling her into the thing and dumping her outside. (Hint: That is NOT the way to teach your cat to walk on a lead.)

Here’s how I trained Willow to walk on a leash in six steps: Continue reading

Writing Exercises: Synthesis

Before my students submit their first essay, I introduce them to the idea of synthesizing their research. I open the discussion with a description of how I usually see research used in student essays: a paragraph making a point with one source used for an example; another paragraph making another point with another source used for an example; and so on, which each paragraph referring to only one source and most sources only used once in on paragraph. This description often elicits nodding from students, agreeing that is how they use sources.

‘Using your sources that way works,’ I say, ‘But it isn’t very sophisticated and you aren’t getting much out of your sources this way. Today we are going to practice synthesizing your sources.’

Synthesis is joining the conversation.

Synthesis, I explain, is like having a conversation. Each of your sources is a person sitting a table in a café and they are talking about your topic. When you write your essay, you are pulling up a chair to their table and joining the conversation. Think about how you have conversations with a group of people: does each person speak in a monologue before passing the topic on to the next person at the table?

No. Instead, people talk over each other, interrupting each other, adding on to someone’s earlier point with an example of their own, or countering what someone said with an opinion. During a conversation, each person’s idea is woven in with the others’. That is what synthesis looks like when writing an essay.

Writing exercise:

I then organize the students into groups of four or five and give them this exercise:

Choose an issue on campus that all of you have an opinion about.* DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR OPINIONS YET. Once you have selected a topic, spend five minutes writing about it.

When everyone in your group is finished writing, choose one or two people to be the note-takers for your group. Then take turns reading your opinion aloud. The note-takers will pay attention to any repeated ideas, points of agreement, points of disagreement, and anything else that seems noteworthy – these are the “themes” of your conversation – and keep track of who said what. Review the notes as a group after everyone has finished reading.

Now organize the notes. You may find it helpful to use a chart:

Theme: Theme: Theme:
Name:
Name:
Name:
Name:
Name:

Now begin to think about how you would translate your chart into writing. For instance, you could write a paragraph about each person’s ideas summarizing their main points OR you could write a paragraph about each theme/idea and include all five points of view in each paragraph.

The first option is simply summarizing. The second option is SYNTHESIS.

Synthesis writing is more sophisticated and better demonstrates that you know what each source says about the subject and how the source relates to the other sources. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about each point in your group’s topic.

This exercise works well to introduce the meaning of synthesis and put it into practice. After discussing their results, I then provide them a Synthesis Matrix to use for their essay’s sources. The rest of the class period is spent filling out the synthesis matrix for their essays, and I wander around the room helping students to identify themes in their sources for their topics.

After introducing this exercise into my lesson plans, I have seen a dramatic improvement of how sources are used in my students’ essays.


* After a few times doing this exercise, I’ve banned the topic ‘parking on campus’ because inevitably every group chooses it. I’m tired of hearing people complain about parking and I’d rather them think of a more creative topic to discuss.

Eleanor

Opening line: ‘She sits in the breakfast nook and watches the rain.’

Eleanor - Jason GurleyEleanor — there are two Eleanors, herself and the grandmother she was named after — does her best to live a normal teenager’s life while also taking care of her alcoholic mother. Tragedy seems to run in her family: her grandmother’s disappearance, the car crash that killed her twin sister, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s bitter and angry retreat from reality through alcohol. The tragedy continues when Eleanor herself disappears, first for hours, then days, then years at a time, with no rational explanation for what is happening to her. What she does know, however, is that there is a reason she keeps being transported to these different dream worlds, if only she could figure out what it is…

The novel Eleanor isn’t quite sci-fi or fantasy, but rather magical realism. The narrative tells the story of this troubled family from multiple perspectives: the first Eleanor, her daughter Agnes as an adult, the younger Eleanor, as well as Agnes’s husband, Eleanor’s friend Jack, and a mysterious consciousness that is outside of human time but has the power to pluck Eleanor from her world and drop her into another. What first caught my attention was the descriptions of the sea off the Northwestern American coast, then by the author’s skillful portrayal of the characters as fully human and flawed. Eleanor does not figure out what is going on until the final quarter of the book, but even then I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do as she continued to travel the dream worlds to heal her family’s hurts. Thus intrigued, I kept reading, but in the end I felt my curiosity was unrewarded. The ending was too tidy while simultaneously leaving many unanswered questions. Somehow, with a form of time travel left unexplained, a fateful moment is changed with the assumption that all following events will also change for the better: no car crash, no divorce, no alcoholism. But what will be the consequences of that change? Not just for that family, but for everyone connected to them? Are the consequences ‘worth it’? Ultimately, I was disappointed that the novel failed to grasp the complexity of changing a person’s timeline and that doing so is not the simple cure for one family’s troubles.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.