I am a good/bad student.

School, I know from my Facebook feed, just started for many people. Today’s autobiographical tale is meant to be a bit of advice for any and all students, whether your school is elementary, junior, high, vocational, collegiate, or of the “hard knocks” variety.

Let me add to my preface the fact that I graduated high school near the top of my class (though not at the very top since those kids were my friends and I didn’t want to take that away from them). And each semester at college, I made the Dean’s List. And while there was some confusion as to whether I was enrolled in the College of Education or the College of Arts & Sciences, I made two different Dean’s Lists. I was also a member of the Lee Honors College. I have never had too much difficulty in school.

Student stress kills.

This is what an honor student looks like.

Now, there are two types of people who can make this claim: people who work very hard on their schoolwork at the cost of their sleep, social lives, and sanity, and people who get by on last-minute study sessions, lucky guesses, and learning the teacher’s favorite dessert. All good, moral people would encourage you to be in the first group of people. I, on the underhand (play on words intended), advocate the second avenue to academic success. It is easier, and it is more fun.

My wife, who loves me dearly, hates this about me.Why? Because she has always been in the first group of students. She works hard for everything she has, and then she goes on to work hard after she achieves whatever it is she was working for. She can’t stand the fact that I got the grades I did while putting in one-third the effort. In fact, there is one story from my freshman year of college that absolutely steams her.

This is it.

It was finals week in the Winter semester of the freshman year. I had taken all but my last final, Rec 101,  and was packing up the last few things from my dorm room. I knew that my final wasn’t until 1pm. The final would take about and hour and a half, so I would be completely done with my freshman year of college by 2:30pm. I had arranged for my dad to come down to Kalamazoo with a van to help me load up my stuff at 3pm. Like clockwork!

So when I decided at noon to pull out my Rec 101 (Introduction to Recreation) notes for a last-minute study, I was surprised to discover that my 1pm final was actually a 10am final. My mind couldn’t immediately make sense of the fact that I had completely missed my last final exam, the one for the introductory course for my newly chosen major.

“What?” said my eyes. “I missed it?”

“Um,” said my brain. “Looks like it.”

“Fudge,” said my mouth.

Now, had I been a student of the hard-working ilk, I would never have made that mistake. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that I was a model student and that I had somehow missed my final exam. I would have been in serious trouble. I wouldn’t have known the first thing to do to make things right.

Fortunately, that was not the case and I knew exactly what to do.

Again, here was the situation. It is shortly after noon. My computer, my dorm room, and my life in general are mostly in boxes. My dad is en route to pick me up in less than three hours. And I have missed one of my final exams.

Not to worry.

This is what a cool professor looks like.

You see, the professor and I had struck up a friendship. I was an active participant in class discussions. He was always interested to hear the latest happenings of the Valhalla Norwegian Society (a Registered Student Organization that I made up and got the school to recognize in an effort to apply for school funds to throw parties and award myself scholarships). And he and I played racquetball every now and again.

When I realized that I missed his final exam, I first called his office in the College of Education. But, since this was his last final too, he had left for the day. Not a problem. Due to our friendship, I knew his home number. I tried him there. No answer. I left a message.

“Um,” I said into his answering machine. “This is Josh. You may or may not have noticed that I missed the Rec 101 final this morning. So… sorry about that. Any chance I could take it anyway?”

My professor lived about an hour away from the university, so it took a while for him to get home and hear my message.

I have finished packing everything except my notes and my Rec 101 books. I am sitting still, staring at my phone like an ugly girl on prom night. At about 1:30pm, he calls me.

“So Josh,” he says. “You missed the final exam.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry again for that. I was sure that it was at one. It turns out, it was at ten.”

“Glad you figured that out,” he says. “What are we going to do about that?”

“Well,” I say. “I had an idea about that. Is there any way you could email me the final? I could take it now, email back the answers, and we could pretend that I was really there this morning.”

“Hmm,” he says. “Well, since you have always been a good student, and you seem to know the material, as long as you promise not to use your book or your notes, I can do that.”

“Thanks,” I say, and put the phone down. I know that I yelled for joy. I think I may have even capered around my room.

Of course, this new deal doesn’t change the fact that I already have my computer packed up and my dad is on his way to pick me up in about an hour.

I run down the dorm hallway and ask people in various states of packing whether their computers are still hooked up to the network and whether I might borrow one of them to take a final exam immediately. Finally, I find one at my across the hall neighbor. I entrust my notes and book to my roommate (who is waiting for his parent to pick him up) and wait for my professor’s email.

With just under an hour before my dad is to show up, I get the email. I take the exam. I email him back my answers. I thank him profusely again for allowing me to take it.

Minutes later, my dad shows up. We pack up the van, stop off to eat some dinner on the way, and before long I am home.

It takes a few weeks for the grades to come by mail.

REC 101: A

So students, let this be a lesson to you. Of course you can work hard, memorize everything, do all of the practice homework, read all of the readings, and study for tests more than an hour before you take them. But there is another way. And it may just be the better way.

Maybe you should find out if your teacher/professor plays racquetball and challenge them to a match. Maybe it will end up saving you.


A Grimm Essay | Socialism and Transformation

This is the essay that I would have handed in yesterday if I was continuing in the course. The rules called for a length between 270 and 320 words and the goal was “to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Few changes in history were as dramatic and life-altering as those introduced in the Industrial Revolution. Urbanization replaced pastoral life. Mass production replaced handcrafted goods. A child’s education was replaced by factory work. Life was changing at every level of society. And siblings Lucy and Walter Crane saw an opportunity to make a political statement through children’s books, specifically Grimm’s Household Stories.

The 1882 publication (read them here) of this collection of fairy stories written by the brothers Grimm is made up of fifty-two tales. The traditional stories that have since had fame as Disney franchises are included of course (although they differ greatly from the happy versions that we show our children today). But one quarter of the tales chosen to be part of this collection contain some element of transformation.

Transformation in story is often looked upon as a magical and good thing, and though the changes included in these tales are magical, they are not often good.

In The Raven, a child is cursed into the form of a raven by a mother’s frustration. In The Frog Prince, the titular character is being punished and only transforms back into human form when the princess throws him against a wall in anger. The Almond Tree is a particularly disturbing tale in which a son is killed by his stepmother, eaten by his father, and buried by his step sister beneath an almond tree only to become a bird who tells of his fate and is returned to life as a human after the death of his stepmother. The Golden Bird shows a fox who must be beheaded and his feet cut off in order to transform back into the prince of the golden castle.

These stories were a statement on the conditions of the time and a warning on change itself. As socialists, the Cranes used these stories to impress a need for protection from the Industrial Revolution.

Back to School | Or Not.

Well, today is the day that my first official assignment is due for the Coursera class in which I am enrolled. But I’m not going to hand anything in.

Over the weekend, I finished the reading, did research on the author and illustrator, and formed the workings of the essay that I was to hand in today. The reason that I am not going to hand anything in is because I have decided to discontinue the class.

The premise is interesting, the videos were educational, and I enjoy the professor’s approach to the materials. But even though this is a free course, there is a cost that no one tells you. The cost for me is time with my family and that cost is too high.

My wife was encouraging when I enrolled in the course, and understanding when I discussed stopping. You see, quality time together is the way that she best feels love and she already encourages me through writing time everyday. To ask for more time apart so that I could take the online class while she is trying to take care of our newest daughter (2 weeks and some days old now) and corral our almost 2-year-old didn’t feel to me like I was being the best husband I could.

So I am dropping out of a free course. I’m hoping that when things settle down into a routine with our littlest one, maybe my wife and I could enroll in a class together. But for now, this is the best decision.

If any of you had accepted my call to do the class with me, I am sorry to bow out on you. I would love to hear from you how the class goes and what you are learning, so be sure to leave me a comment or write a post and I’ll re-blog it here.

And just so it isn’t wasted, I’m going to post my homework tomorrow (after the due date lest anyone decide to hand in my paper as their own).

Back to School | It Begins…

Today is the first day of the online course that I spoke of earlier. To save you the click, I’ve enrolled in a free online course offered by the University of Michigan through Coursera entitled “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. After reading the course syllabus, I’m pretty excited to get started.

That said, this is also my first full week back at work after taking a week of paternity time to help out with my newest daughter. I’ve forgotten just how busy life can seem when you are getting less sleep. Fortunately, my wife is encouraging me to go back to sleep in the middle of the night when the newest one needs to eat. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that the true difficulty of having two kids doesn’t come from the youngest one (who mostly just sleeps and eats and poops and wakes you up in the middle of the night), but from the oldest one (who is running all over pulling out the toys and things that you just put away probably because you just put things away and she sees that as an affront to her toddler feng shui).

Anyway, now that the time has come to do the online course, I’m wondering if I will be able to give it my all, when I am also trying to give my all to my wife, my family, my work, and my writing (including this blog). I’m a big guy, but I don’t know if I’ll be big enough to divide into that many directions.

This is just a worry I have. I’ve done difficult things before and have come out the stronger for it. I’m probably just quibbling here, but if you think of it, offer up a prayer on my behalf that I’ll be able to take care of my responsibilities and not lose my mind in the process of pursuing my creative outlets.

Back to School & Book Club Reminders…

I just got an email from the fine people at Coursera and thought I’d share it with you.

How does the Internet work? Why were LinkedIn passwords easier to break into? What is the time value of money? What do the novels Alice and Wonderland, Dracula, and Frankenstein say about the relationship between science, technology, and our hopes and fears? Did my 3rd-grade teacher explain only a suboptimal algorithm for multiplying two numbers?

Come geek-out with us over these and tons of other interesting questions explored through our summer courses!

We’ll be sending out this newsletter 1-2 times a month to keep you updated on new course offerings and Coursera news. We hate spam too, so we’ll only send out our newsletter with information that we think will be useful for you. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ to get the most current updates.

Happy studying!

Your Coursera Team

If you remember, I am signed up for the free course being offered by the University of Michigan called “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. Back then, I asked if anyone would be willing to do this with me. My good friend Bob volunteered and a few of my Facebook friends showed interest, but I thought I’d mention it again for any newcomers to be able to join us. If you are curious check out the link here.

And not so long ago, I blogged about the book club that my friend Bruce and I were starting. Anyone is welcome to join us, either in physical form (if you live in the West Michigan area) or in a digital form (if you live anywhere else).

We’re reading A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, and we’ll be meeting to discuss it in mid-August. That means that you still have time to pick up a copy and read about 100 pages per week to finish in time for the discussion. Even if you are reading other books at the time, you can squeeze in 100 pages of this book. It is a fast read and engaging so far, and I’m only about 100 pages in.

I realize that HBO recently made this book into a mini-series that was well-received, but I ask that you take the time to read the book. I’m sure that people who have both seen the series and read the book can attest to the fact that books are almost always better to their on-screen counterparts.

Anyway, I just wanted to remind you about what we have going on here at my blog. If you are interested in joining the book club, but you can’t afford the book (or if you don’t have access to a good library), send me an email. I have an extra copy for the first interested party.

Be sure to mention in the comments if you are thinking about joining me in either of these endeavors!

Back to School | Fantasy & Science Fiction

My phone died on the way home from work yesterday. I’m really glad that it did.

My wife and I both get out at 5:00 PM. She picks up our daughter from her parent’s house on the way home from her work, and I get dinner started since I get home first. We always call each other and talk on the way home (driving safely, of course). But yesterday, my phone died just as I was pulling onto our street.

I got home a few seconds later and went about my routine (let the dog out, get the mail, take care of my lunch bag, start dinner). By the time I got my phone plugged in to call my wife back, she was almost home.

“Monkers,” she said to me, “Did you happen to turn on NPR after your phone died?”

I told her that I did not.

“Because I heard something on the radio that made me think of you.”

She proceeded to tell me about a free class being offered by the University of Michigan that had to do with Fantasy something-or-other. My wife knows that I would like to go back to school at some point and get some formal training in writing. I graduated a few years back from Western Michigan University with a degree in Recreation and a minor in Communication. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I took up a serious interest in writing.

“I’d really like to look into that,” I said.

So I did.

The class is called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. It doesn’t look like a specifically “writing” course, but it looks great all the same.

Here’s a description from the sign-up page:

Fantasy is a key term both in psychology and in the art and artifice of humanity. The things we make, including our stories, reflect, serve, and often shape our needs and desires. We see this everywhere from fairy tale to kiddie lit to myth; from “Cinderella” to Alice in Wonderland to Superman; from building a fort as a child to building ideal, planned cities as whole societies. Fantasy in ways both entertaining and practical serves our persistent needs and desires and illuminates the human mind. Fantasy expresses itself in many ways, from the comfort we feel in the godlike powers of a fairy godmother to the seductive unease we feel confronting Dracula. From a practical viewpoint, of all the fictional forms that fantasy takes, science fiction, from Frankenstein to Avatar, is the most important in our modern world because it is the only kind that explicitly recognizes the profound ways in which science and technology, those key products of the human mind, shape not only our world but our very hopes and fears. This course will explore Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in specific both as art and as insights into ourselves and our world.

This course comprises ten units. Each will include a significant reading, typically a novel or a selection of shorter works. I will offer video discussions of each of the readings and also of more general topics in art and psychology that those readings help illuminate. Each unit will include online quizzes and ask you to write a brief essay offering your own insights into the reading. All the readings except Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will be available online at no charge.

The professor is Eric S. Rabkin. Again, from the sign-up page:

Eric S. Rabkin is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. He has won numerous teaching awards, including the Golden Apple awarded annually by the students to the outstanding teacher at the University of Michigan. His research publications include the first English-language theoretical discussion of fantasy and the second of science fiction. He has won the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction criticism.

And the class really is free.

I signed up last night.  You can sign up here. Who’s going to join me?