Monthly Archives: September 2011

Faculty/Staff Recommendation: Jim Needham

Jim Needham


Jim Needham

Math Professor


It’s hard to pick just one, so I’ll go with one I reread recently —Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  It’s not at all like the movies you know.  It’s all about what it means to be human.  Are humans distinct from nature, or are we part of it?  What responsibilities, if any, do we have to other people?  Is science just another Tower of Babel, or will it solve all our problems?  Pretty deep stuff for a woman still in her teens.  Pretty deep stuff for anybody.

The Day the Computers Died . . .

I guess that when the computers go down on campus, the worst job to have is at the Help Desk. The minute, nay the second, the network is down, they are inundated with phone calls from students, staff, and faculty wanting to know what is wrong and when it’ll be fixed. And because the network is down, they can’t simply email the campus with some information. Yes, their job is the worst to have when the computers go down.

In my humble opinion, the second worst job is in the library. We too are inundated with questions, but the main difference between us and the help desk folks is that we are as in the dark as the students. But that doesn’t keep the questions from coming.

Today, we knew three things: A transformer blew in the building that houses the servers. All electricity was off in that building, and there was no computer access. We knew this because an announcement came over a loud-speaker. And that was all we knew. But the next few hours went something like this:

STUDENT: What’s wrong with internet? (BTW, we had put up a sign.)

US: It’s down due to a power outage.

STUDENT: When will it be back up?

US: We don’t know.

STUDENT: I have a paper due.

US: I’m sorry.

STUDENT: This is bad timing.

US: I’m sorry.

STUDENT: Well, if I come back in a hour, will it be up?

US: We don’t know. You can call us and see.

Now most students were extremely gracious and understanding. They tried to do the work they could, went to lunch, and checked back later. But the lack of basic technology did drive some to the edge. One student, in frustration, hit our sign announcing the problem and sent it flying across the floor. He apologized profusely. Another wanted to know why we couldn’t tell him when the network would be back up. He seemed to find our ignorance an example of poor customer service.

About 2;30, all the servers had been restarted, and we all could email, send assignments, check Facebook, and do all the thousands of things we take for granted each day. Good humor was restored. Those who had taken advantage of canceled class and beautiful weather trickled back in to finish up some homework.

The only reminder of the day was a lingering headache on my part. And a slightly bent sign.

The Library’s September Challenge: The Final Check-In

Let’s face it: If you were kidnapped and the library staff had to give up a bad habit for a month to save you, it would be very sad for you. We had our difficulties and did not end on a strong note. It’s kind of amazing that among a group of people with five advanced degrees, musical careers, and various other accomplishments, we somehow couldn’t give up anything for 30 days. Still, we’re all doing better than we started, and that is a positive step.

Here is each person’s update in his/her own words:

The Person with Several Challenges–

September’s challenges waned….I started at not pulling at my hair, but soon failed, for it brought me comfort…especially when doing my new math lab homework. Theeeennnn, I attempted to give up cussing. Mathlab changed my mind on that….I then decided the challenge for me would be not to eat red meat, and although this challenge tugs at my heart, I have partaken of red meat several times this month – starting with my mother’s delicious welcome home supper several weekends ago. This brought back a small craving; however, I’ve only eaten it twice since, and I plan to continue my attempt. Next month…start walking and working out. It is time…way past. I don’t want to grow old … an invalid. Wish me luck!

The Early-to-Bed Person

Breaking a bad habit is not nearly as exciting as accomplishing goals on a “life list”! But, for me, tackling a bad habit (like staying up indefinitely) can be slightly less depressing if I focus on cultivating a good one (going to bed at or near 9:00) in its place. I had moderate success this month. Even on nights when I stayed up past nine, I was usually asleep by ten. It helped that my goal was specific (9:00) rather than vague (“early”). It also helped that I chose to work on a habit that has a strong and immediate effect on my life.

 The Early-to-Rise Person:

I’m not sure what constitutes total failure. I certainly didn’t make the 30 days. I probably made half of them, so that’s not great. Still, it’s better than it was before. I’ve also learned where I’m going wrong: staying up too late and then reading after I go to bed, both which make the alarm seem to sound way too early. I’m going to continue this challenge into October.

 The Money Guy:

It has been nice walking up to a cash register either having cash or knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that my card will not be declined.  I guess if I ever want to own anything I will need to be able to work within a budget and although I did not always keep within my budget this month I remained aware of where I stood financially and that took some pressure off.


Now I need to challenge myself to do something that is not a challenge.  A self- prescribed challenge about challenges, totally meta.


Most of us will continue with this, but next week is a new month. And that means a new challenge!


Life Lessons from the Library: Care about Censorship

This week is Banned Books Week, the week that we library people celebrate freedom of reading and draw attention to efforts to censor books and ideas. We have an exhibit that features books that have been banned and challenged.  

A student commented that challenged books are not the same as banned books and, therefore, should not be part of the banned books exhibit. I respectfully disagree. In fact, when a book is challenged, it is perhaps in just as much danger as when it’s banned. It can have a freezing effect on other libraries. Does a library really want to add a book to the collection when it’s going to be challenged with all the resulting paperwork and bother?  With so many other books out there, maybe another book can be bought that won’t cause the trouble. You get the picture.

We don’t have that problem so much at our community college library where it’s assumed our patrons are adults. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a student complain about a book being on one of our shelves. However, there have been comments made by others that remind me that it’s good to police ourselves for the tendency to censor as well:

  • A faculty member (long moved on) saw a Harry Potter book on the banned books exhibit and expressed his approval for its being banned since the idea of wizards came from evil sources.
  • A staff member was unhappy with Bertrand Russell’s Why I  Am Not a Christian being on display.
  • A visitor asked if we had any books for children. When I mentioned the Harry Potter series, she visibly recoiled as if I’d suggested that her kids could play with live snakes in the library.

And the thing is, I’m sympathetic to their complaints. There are certain books that turn my stomach, make my political blood boil, and disgust my religious sensitivities. I may not like them, but it ‘s not my job to censor them. In fact, I would argue that it is my job to make sure that books representing all views show up on my library shelves. The biggest mistake I could make is to assume that everyone thinks and believes the way I do and that the library should represent only my point of view.

So I work hard to make sure that all sides of issues are covered in the library. And I feel pretty good when librarians report stories such as this one: A student came up looking for research on some current political issue. (It was a couple of years ago, so I’ve forgotten the particulars.) He told one of the librarians in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want any of those liberal publications that college libraries were stocked with. She simply nodded and rattled off a bunch of “conservative” titles that he could use. He was surprised and impressed.

But librarians should not be the only ones who care about censorship. We all should. I don’t want my choices to be determined by someone else’s religious or political beliefs. I may choose not to read a book based on my beliefs, but that should be my choice. Alone. And yours. Individually.

Monday Motivator: Don’t Be Afraid to Spoon Feed Occasionally.

Last week a student walked by while I was at the circulation desk. “Hello, my angel,” she said. She calls me this every time she comes by. What did I do to deserve this? Did I save her life?  No, I showed her how to attach her document to an email. Well, actually, the first time I did it for her.

Aha! I hear you saying. You’re spoon-feeding students over there in the library.

And I say, “Yep, sure am. And proud of it.”

You see, the student was scared to death. She didn’t remember how to get in her course shell, let alone send an email or attach something to it. And her paper was due. She was already stressed, so I did it while saying each step out loud.

The next time she came in the library, she was able to get in the course’s email before needing my help. And not being so rushed this time, she took notes on the rest of the steps. Now she sends emails like a pro. And when she needs help, she asks.  But most of the time, she walks by the desk, says hello, and goes to do her assignment.

We may get angry at students who want us to do things for them, things that we remember having to learn and  do on our own in college. But what we mistake for learned helplessness may be just a paralyzing fear of getting started, and once students are shown how to do something in a nonthreatening way, they’re willing to give it a try.

Last year, we had a student who seemed to be the textbook case of someone who wanted spoon-feeding. Her first encounter with one staff member was to demand that he make copies for her. If she had an assignment, she would ask the librarians to find her books and article titles, and then to get the actual books and articles for her.

When she’d put titles on the circulation desk on her way to class and say, “I’ll be by to pick this up tomorrow,” we had a discussion of whether we were helping too much. But then someone noticed something. She had started making her own copies. And while she wanted us to get books for her, she had started looking them up in the catalog on her own. What we realized is that she wanted to be as independent as we wanted her to be, but it was going to be a process.

We all have the same goal–to make our students independent and life-long learners. But we have to realize they don’t all start at the same place. Older students are facing a classroom that looks radically different from what they remember. “A paperless classroom” can sound as foreign as a calculus problem. And while we’d like to believe our younger students are more tech savvy than we are, the digital divide is very real and has the potential to keep students from being successful. For these students, the sink-or-swim approach is going to result in more sinking than swimming. They need a little more hand-holding in the beginning.

So go ahead. Call me a spoon feeder. It’s a badge I wear with pride.




Faculty/Staff Recommendation: Diane Eagle

Diane Eagle

Diane Eagle

ESL Professor

Ever wonder what that cute girl really thinks of you?  Want to know if your kids are lying to you?  Is that international student really trying to be rude with that hand gesture?  Ever seen the TV show “Lie to Me” and wonder what a micro-gesture is?  Only about 30% of meaning is communicated with words; the rest is conveyed through voice and body language.  People are sending out signals, both consciously and unconsciously, all the time, and The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Allan and Barbara Pease, can help you interpret them.  You can read the entire book, or just pick certain chapters that are the most interesting to you.  It’s based on scholarly research, but its humor and illustrations make it very readable.  The authors of this book also wrote Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, which I also enjoyed.

Why Sometimes There’s No Response . . .

Every year, student surveys report that students are dissatisfied with the rate and amount of faculty response to their emails and phone messages. This bothers me, and I encourage everyone in my area to respond to students as soon as possible. And, for the most part, we do.

However, there are times we can’t, and here are the reasons why:

  • Wrong email addresses given to us. Last week, I was working on chat. A student needed some documents sent, so I asked for his email address. He typed it in, and I copied it down. When I emailed later, Outlook sent me a “no such address” mail failure notice. I was still at the same computer and the chat was still up. I had copied the email down correctly, and since I didn’t have the student’s whole name, I had no other way to connect with him.
  • Email and address lists not updated. Sometimes we get questions from students emailed from their online courses. For some technical reason, we can’t respond directly to those emails. We have to look up their ID numbers in the student database, so we can email using their preferred address. At least half the time, students have not updated those addresses, and so once again, we are sending messages out into the ether.
  • Garbled phone messages. This one thing drives me crazy (or crazier than I am). Someone will leave a voice mail message. It goes on for minutes. The person labors through each syllable. And then she comes to her phone number, which she rattles off at a speed that can only be described as supersonic. Sometimes, repeated listening does not help, and after having colleagues unsuccessfully try to decipher the numbers, I can only hope the person will call back.
Now, don’t get me wrong. In spite of best intentions, we do sometimes forget to call back. We’re only human. But make it a little easier for us. Give us the ability to do so.

The Library September Challenge: The Third Check-in

Change is hard. For every person who manages to drop a bad habit, there are hundreds, nay thousands, who don’t. And even for many successful habit changers, success often comes after many, many failures.

Our poor library group has suffered its shares of failures and setbacks this month. One person has dropped out. Our vegetarian went for a weekend visit to her mom’s, where meat was on the table for almost every meal. And she ate it. And the Jolly Librarian? It is spotty progress at best. One morning, I get up with the alarm. The next, I somehow manage to sleep through three. Of the four of us who started the month, only one has managed to completely follow through so far: our spender.

Now while not great for us, this is not necessarily a bad lesson for others to learn. One  college research study found one small change made a significant difference in the persistence and success of students in a science class. The researchers sent students information about successful scientists, but only those who had struggled and sometimes failed in their careers.

At first, that may seem counter-intuitive: who wants to know about failure? We want to celebrate the successful. But it is a smart approach. Years ago, a math teacher friend of mine would start each semester by saying something like, “Math is hard. There’s no way to get around that. But if you’ll come to class, do the homework, and stick with me, you will learn this.”

Think about it: Imagine coming into a math class. You’re scared to death. You don’t how to do math; it’s always been hard for you. Then someone looks at you and says, “Hey, don’t be scared. Math is easy.”  Suddenly, you’re not only scared, but you feel like a failure already. If math is easy and you can’t do it, what does that say about you?

But if the instructor is realistic and says that a course is tough, then there is a reassurance there. It’s okay to have to work hard and struggle. The same was true with the students in the college study. By knowing that other people had found science difficult and still managed to succeed, they understood the path might be tough but could be traversed. And they learned that it was the skill that was challenging, not that they were dumb.

So, like many things, failure is all in the way you look at it. And I’m not giving up on getting up on time.


Life Lessons from the Library: Never Put All Your Hope in Technology

Emily was doing an orientation session today. When she went into the classroom and clicked on the computer, she found it was not connected to the Internet. About the same time, in my office, I sat down to work on some curriculum committee materials and found my computer was also not connected. Apparently, the computers shared a line, and since only those two were affected, it wasn’t  noticed until we both needed them at the same time.

Luckily, both of us had back-up plans. Since the student computers were working, Emily did the orientation, walking students through the databases instead of showing them on the large screen. I called a colleague to let her know that I was having problems and that the approvals were given, just not recorded.

As often as things go wrong, I’m always a little amazed by people’s inability or unwillingness to have a plan B when the technology doesn’t work. I’ve sat idly in meetings while we’ve waited for IT to come to the rescue. Now I’m not against that, but most of the time, I’m thinking, surely there’s something we could be doing while we’re waiting.

For students, technology has become the modern equivalent of  ‘the dog ate my homework’ : My internet was down. Your internet was down. My password wouldn’t work.

Technology has become as pervasive in our lives as air. However, unlike air, we can still function without it. And we need to learn to. If your internet is down, then go to the library. If the library’s webpage is down, then use your public library’s databases. And if you wait until the weekend before something is due to find out your password doesn’t work, then that was a really bad decision.

I don’t want to sound like a crank: I’m usually known as the bleeding heart among my colleagues. But perhaps since I’m old enough to remember a time before this pervasiveness, I also remember that there are other ways to proceed.

As an English instructor, I had two recommendations when I assigned the research paper:

  • Assume things will go wrong and pad your schedule to work around problems.
  • Always have a plan B.
It’s just the professional thing to do. Maybe one day,we’ll live in a society where technology never fails. Until we do, always have a back-up plan.


Monday Motivator: Snakes May Be Our Friends, But Not in the Kitchen

Last week, a friend of mine told the following story: Her former mother-in-law, her current neighbor, came home from a hospital stay to find a rattle snake in her kitchen. Apparently, as unhappy as she at sharing the kitchen, it struck at her, thankfully missing. She ran over to my friend’s house, and my friend’s current husband returned to do battle. Unfortunately, the snake had hidden itself away in the meantime, and a combination of my friend’s husband and the local fire department had no luck finding it. The woman is now staying with my friend until the snake is found or the house has been totally cleaned out with so sign of it.

There are many lessons to be learned from this story:

  • Don’t leave your heat on while you’re gone to the hospital, so that snakes will think your  home is a nice warm place to hang out.
  • Have someone check out your house before you come home from the hospital.
  • Have the number of the nearest Rid-a-Critter on speed dial.
Of course, the snake meant no harm; it found a hole that brought it to a warm spot and stayed there. It can’t be blamed for that. Still, it could have caused real harm.
Like the snake, we sometimes find ourselves in places we shouldn’t be.  We overhear something about a colleague that’s none of our business. Someone confides something to us that puts us at odds with another friend. We find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and see something we wish we hadn’t.
But unlike the snake in the kitchen, we can choose how to respond. We don’t have to create further damage. Sure, we can’t return to a state of ignorance, but we can ensure the knowledge goes no further. We can simply leave that wrong place and go on with our lives.
Now if there were only a way for snakes to let us know when they had left the building.