August 22, 2014

Welcome Non-Trads!

"Is there going to be anyone else like me in class? 
Or am I going to be the only person my age?"

A new advisee, likely in her thirties, asked me those questions while we were figuring out her Fall courses schedule. I'm so used to diversity of age and experience in our classrooms that I forget how hard it can be to start school as a "non-trad" (non-traditional student) or come back to college after being away for years. I consistently underestimate this as a professor, probably because I love having non-trad students in class. From my perspective, though some of them struggle to brush up their reading, writing, and academic skills, non-trads have so much more going for them than most students coming straight to college from high school.

So what makes someone a non-trad student? Non-trads are often older than traditional students, but not always. For instance, if you have a baby, you become a non-trad. Non-trads usually have or have had jobs, been paying bills, and maybe raising kids or taking care of adult parents or other loved ones. Non-trads may be veterans or currently in the military. Having a job is not a particularly defining feature for non-trads by itself. At this point, I assume nearly all of our students are working at least part-time, if not more. By the way, google informs me that non-trads are twenty-five years old or older. Not sure why the age line was drawn there.

Are you prepared for a few of my generalizations as to why non-trads students make awesome college students? [These are generalizations. You've been warned.]

1. Non-trad students often have a clearer reason for being in school at this point in their lives. You chose to come to school now, not just because you're "supposed to" or because you weren't sure what else to do. You know what your time is worth and how precious it is. [By the way, lest you think I am slamming folks who come to college right from high school, I'm not. I was one of those students. I was a pretty serious, focused student and got a lot out of undergrad, but I'm sure that I got more out of schooling that I chose when I was older than I did during my undergrad years.]

2. You've got skills! And you may underestimate how they will serve you in school or how important they are, but the skills you have are the very ones that many students coming from high school haven't developed yet. Planning. Prioritizing. Understanding schedules. Clear communication. Better social skills. If you've been a parent or a caretaker, you've been to skill building boot camp. You really know how to prioritize and get stuff done. You know what procrastination gets you, especially when you are juggling lots of different responsibilities. Hopefully this allows you to skip the first term lull where new students think "this is easy", until midterm catches up with them.

3. Non-trad students often know how to advocate for themselves and ask for help when they need it. I regard all college students as adults, but embracing and owning your adulthood allows you to just ask the question. You may feel reticent or nervous about speaking up or asking questions, but you folks are far braver and know what you need to do. I'm very thankful for the students in our classes who call me out when I'm using words they are unfamiliar with or assuming the class is with me when I'm not making myself clear. That student who speaks up is usually making a point or asking a question that at least five other students wanted to ask. Students who speak up and give feedback really are a gift to the class, whether they are traditional or non-traditional students. But I think this is a non-trad strong suit.

4. Your presence alongside your younger straight-out-of-high-school counterparts makes classroom discussions much, much more interesting for all of us. Nothing makes classroom more vibrant than diversity of experience and opinion. And echo chamber of similar experience and agreement doesn't help any of us understand the complexity of the world or improve our communication with people around us.

So if you think to yourself "the students are going to be my kids' age (or even my grandkids' age)..." or "I'm afraid I'm going to look clueless," I hear you. That's anxiety talking. Everyone, traditional student or non-traditional student, has some anxiety walking into the classroom initially. The first day of the term, even knowing at least half the students in our small classes, I'm nervous. The only thing that is different is the content of that anxiety. If you are somewhere like our school [UMM], which is pretty small, you'll get to know other students, professors, and staff. This helps. If you're in a bigger school, find a way to meet people. Resist the desire to take only online classes just to avoid the classroom and meeting other students. Trust me.

So, rock on non-trads. You have a lot to share with us in the classroom and a lot to learn from you each other and traditional students too. See you soon!

Got a student club for non-trads, commuters, and/or students with children?
If you happen to be student at University of Maine at Machias who has kids and/or an interest in more kid and family-friendly activities on campus, consider joining the UMM Families group on Facebook. Hopefully by Spring Term 2015 it will be an official student group. We're working on planning a few events for this fall.

Did you know that the beginning of November is Non-Trad Student Week?
How should we celebrate that week?

August 21, 2014

If I Fall, If I Die

Thank you Nikki for choosing Michael Christie's If I Fall, If I Die as our first book together. It seems like this will be our last book of the summer that we read together. Where, oh, where did summer go?

This book caught me off guard. Since the advanced review copy was electronic, I never read and reread the book description the way I would have if it were a paperback that I dragged around everywhere. All I remembered from the first quick read was that the book was about a young boy in Ontario who makes friends with another boy and learns how to skateboard. I missed a few important things.

The main character is eleven-year-old Will Cardiel who lives an extremely sheltered life with his agoraphobic mother in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It's a coming-of-age story, but putting it that box doesn't do it much justice.

First Thoughts? Were you engaged in this book right away or did you have to push yourself?

Meghan: This book took awhile for me to get into, but I'm glad I hung in. Will and his mother Diane's situation and the way they view the world didn't immediately come into focus for me. (Where the hell is Cairo? Or should I say what is Cairo, when it is clear we are not talking about a city in Egypt? And what's the Black Lagoon?) The two of them live in their house without going outside. The author Michael Christie lets the reader slowly put their world together. In hindsight, this really works. The reader has a similar experience to Marcus and Jonah when they first met Will. Will is odd, out of place, and not very easy to understand. Why doe he wear a helmet everywhere? Or what's up with the wetsuit? The disorientation I felt as a reader feels reasonable; however, it made getting into the story challenging. Also, in the first fourth of the book I was afraid Will's mom wouldn't get her day. I didn't want her to be the anxious backdrop for her son's story and not get to be a full person herself. Anxious, one-dimension mothers don't do any of us any favors. However, as the book progresses, the reader learns much more about her perspective, back story, and how she and her relationship with Will changes.

Nikki:  I did not engaged with this book right away - at all.  I was making a face while barely reading the first twenty pages before stopping and saying to myself "What on Earth did I pick to read?" After that though, I, too was hooked.  I wanted to understand how Will saw the world for the first time, as an older child, living his excruciatingly sheltered life. After I picked up on the way the story flowed, I loved it, particularly once Will's mother's story and her perspective was added into the mix.  It is a book I am very glad to have pushed myself to keep reading.

Could you relate to the main character?

Meghan: Could I relate to Will? Not particularly. I don't relate to his sense of the world. Nor his relationship with his mother. However, I could relate to some of Will's mother's anxiety. My son turned two years old this summer. I was surprised at how much having a kid amped up my anxiety about things that never really upset me before. Things mattered differently once I was responsible for someone else who is so dependent. But no, I will not be expecting my son to wear a wet suit to change light bulbs. On a different note, I was glad to read about characters with significant mental health issues written in a way that was respectful, personal, and matter-of-fact. I wasn't surprised to find out the author worked in a homeless shelter and a psychiatric facility. I say this as someone who has both family members with mental health issues and as someone who was a child and family therapist for a while. [Though that seems long ago.]

Nikki:  I could relate to Will a lot, which is probably a reason I loved the book.  I grew up as the youngest child, raised as an only child, and we moved around a lot, so I never really got to explore my surroundings. I also live in what I call "Happy Nikki Bubble Land" where everyone has the same knowledge base as me, so I tend to be oblivious to how other people may view things. Just like Will. I also related to his desire to free himself from his current situation, his excitement with discovering something new, and wanting to push it as far as it could go.

What do you think is the main theme of this book and do you think the author portrays it well?

Meghan: Geeesh Nikki, this question is giving me AP English flashbacks. Love, True Love. ... Just kidding.

Nikki: I think the main theme of this book is coming of age, but it also has the tangent of having a parent who has severe anxiety issues. I do believe the author did a good job portraying Will and his mother's situation. I could very easily put myself in Will's shoes and understand his views of the world, his frustrations with his mother, and his love for her at the same time.
Agoraphobia by Nick Sadek

Are there any moments that struck you, if so, what are they?

Meghan: Besides the general initial disorientation, I was struck by the author's writing and language. At first I bristled at it, as if it were too... something. Awkward? Then I wondered if the odd metaphors actually were very much consistent with Will and his mother's odd world. And sometimes these descriptions were quite beautiful. By the end of the book, I really enjoyed the writing.

"A test for blood sugar, the nurse said, roughly squeezing a lustrous ladybug from his pricked heel."

"On the two flimsy balloons that so narrowly rescue us from suffocation. On the wobbly pâté in our heads that preserves our very selves."

"To endure the flavorless hours, the boys reacquired the necessary talent of kill-switching their minds, slowing their pulses, and holing up in their private mental dens."
That last quotation makes school sound awesome, doesn't it? I wonder what my classes taste like...

Nikki: Many moments in this book struck me.  As a person who is not known to bookmark or dog ear a book, there were a few pages I bookmarked on my kindle while reading.  I loved when Will would talk about other characters and describe their physical sense, but you could just envision them as a whole person, not just their physical sense, you got their mental as well. The bookmarks have disappeared from my kindle or I would list the quotes.

Were there any details you felt the author didn't cover thoroughly? 

Meghan: No. I didn't feel like there were holes. You? 

Nikki:  I wanted the author to cover more thoroughly what went on with Jonah's family and the whole Native American situation.

Meghan: I wasn't sure how similar the racism and discrimination against Native Americans in Canada is compared to in the US. Jonah's character was really important for Will, but his family seemed to only be on the very edge of the story now and then. There were also the labor issues around the mills hiring Native Americans for less money than they hired white workers. Welcome to the world Will. Will was all prepared for physical dangers (i.e., falling, electrocution, drowning, etc.), but it is the cruelness of people, of which he is unaware, that make him seem really innocent and exposed.

Grain Elevator in Thunder Bay Scheduled for "Prettying Up"
Has this novel broadened your perceptions of youth in any way?

Meghan: Not particularly, but that doesn't take away from the novel for me. I spent quite a while working with boys around Will's age that were in and out of foster homes and residential facilities when I was a therapist. Many of them had really rough situations and histories. I actually miss working with them. I hope they find their Jonah equivalents, even if they don't always get to have the steadiest or most present families or have to cobble together their own as the grow up.

Nikki: It has for me.  I realize that lots of children are in these situations, and that it is a weird time for them to want to go out and be their own person, but still let their parent(s) know that they love them and care.

Atreyu trying to get Artax to fight the sadness.

Meghan: Nikki, you and I had an interesting exchange when I said that the Black Lagoon (which seems to be the way Will and his mother refer to overwhelming anxiety that blots out everything else) reminds me of the Swamps of Sadness from The Neverending Story (book by Michael Ende). I was about seven when I saw the movie, and the scene where Artax, Atreyu's horse, drowns wrecked me.  It still does. The Swamps of Sadness swallow you up if you can't "fight" the sadness. In If I Fall, If I Die, if you swap out sadness for fear, the Black Lagoon seems to threaten to do the same thing in a figurative way. [I hope you see The Neverending Story. Ignore Buzzfeed. The book is very good and very different. The second and third movies are not worth seeing.]

Atreyu almost drowning in the Swamps of Sadness after his horse drowned.
Did the plot or story development surprise you in anyway? [Probably some spoilers here.]

Nikki: When the Will's mother was the one who showed up, I was surprised.  It sincerely caught me off guard, I was expecting her to become too afraid that her son was already dead and stay in the house, therefore, it shocked me.

Meghan: For a Never Ending Story reference, she passed the mirror gate. I'm glad for Will and his mother to get Titus back. Spoilers feel so unnatural. So we'll leave this for people to piece together after they start the book. 

Agoraphobia by kcgarza on deviantART - More Black Lagoon?
Concluding thoughts?

Meghan: The world Will and his mother live in is interesting, but not a place I want to hangout in. After I had read about 20% (thank you Kindle, can we have page numbers please?), I wanted to read this story. I want to know what happened and better understand the characters, but I also took breaks and read parts of other books too. I didn't cover-to-cover this one. I would definitely recommend this book.

Nikki, thank you for choosing If I Fall, If I Die. I might not have run into it or have read it without you choosing it.

By the way, Kid Cudi's Pursuit of Happiness comes up over and over if you google "If I Fall, If I Die" since it is part of the lyrics. Random.

For more on summer reading, check out Summer Reading and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Thank you, thank you Nikki & Cheyenne!

August 19, 2014

Yesterday's Kin

And back to scifi reading. :) Better yet, (maybe) first contact scifi.

I just started, and some how finished, Nancy Kress' Yesterday's Kin today. It flew by. Yesterday's Kin essentially starts with the Deneb aliens having arrived on Earth and parked themselves in the bay somewhere around New York. Of course, some people are excited, but most are freaked out. Geneticist Marianne Jenner discovered a previously unknown haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA, which happens to be of interest to the Deneb, so she becomes part of the team of humans working with the them. The Denebs seem really polite and reticent to give their hosts much information. Ask the Denebs what brings them to Earth; they reply, "To make contact with humanity. A peace mission." [Some of you would be relieved to hear that, and the rest of us would feel assured that the Denebs have plans to harm humanity. We just wouldn't be sure whether it would be in shameless pursuit of their own needs or for the love of wanton subjugation and/or destruction. Or both.] Jenner's entire family ends up involved. Her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, is a "passionate defender of isolationism" and a constitutionally unpleasant person who works on border patrol or homeland security. One of Jenner's sons, Ryan, is a International Wildlife Federation and is all about protecting ecosystems from invasive species, like purple loosestrife.

And then there is Noah, that sibling, the one who can't get it together, and you let him crash on your couch even though you claimed you never would again. He is addicted to sugarcane, which is a drug that makes the person taking it feel as if they are someone else. Noah's big thing is he doesn't have a sense of who he is or where belongs. There, I've lined it up for you... if you read anything else about this book, you will know that the major threat coming Earth's way is a cloud of spores that could wipe out humanity and presumable some other living creatures on Earth. So, what are the Deneb's intentions and why are they so interested in people in the newly discovered haplogroup? And can something happen before the spore cloud comes?

"A deep nausea took Marianne, reaching all the way from throat to rectum." That is bad news.

Electronic copies of books are messing with me. Since I can't pick up the book I have no sense of how big it is. The internet tells me it is 192 print pages. I went to my bookshelf and grabbed a random book that didn't look especially big (turned out to be Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body) and found that it was ... 192 pages. Weird. This assured me that I didn't just read a short story or a novella. Help English majors. What exactly is a novella? I get that it is diminutive, but is there a line some where?

Google tells me right away that a novella is "a short novel or a long short story." Thanks for the clarification. Further rifling comes up with both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novella need to be no more than 40,000 words (or that minus one). More searches provided me with a conversion of 40,000 words to approximately 100-150 pages, depending on the formatting. Back to 192 pages, which sounds like it is novel territory.

Why am I going on about this? Because Yesterday's Kin was a fast read! Be careful. There may be a space/time issue with this particular book. [Cruising Good Read's reviews indicates novel//novella "Wait, where the book go?" was a common theme.]

[Somewhat of spoiler below:]

Dear Author Kress, do we get to see these worlds again? Does Noah and his new crew get to meet up with the Terrans again? Please, oh, please?

Squeeze what you can out of your last few days of summer reading
If you like first contact stories that are more about watching humankind figure out how to deal, you'll enjoy this book. Happy last few days of summer reading! This book will be available September 15th from Tachyon Publications.