Saturday, December 24, 2016

Virtual Cliff Diving

I'm about to step off a cliff. Not sure where—or how—I'll land. It's a cliff of my own making, though, so I really have no one but myself to blame if things go astray.

I'll back up a little.

I've been teaching, on and off, since 1978, which means that I have been teaching for much longer than most of my more recent students have been alive. This is a sobering thought. I started off as a high school teacher in Oregon. (Klamath Falls, Oregon, to be exact; home of absolutely nothing. A newspaper editor there for whom I'd written a series of articles was not impressed when I referred to the residents as Klamath Fallopians, though I thought it was a perfectly suitable name. Somehow my reference was deemed too flippant and was expunged from the article before it went to press.) After 6-7 years of teaching, I returned to California, where I taught at a military academy in Carlsbad.

According to an old school yearbook, this is what I looked like when
I began teaching in 1978. As I recall, the rest of the faculty looked
just as goofy. Especially Dave Raffetto.
A few years later, in a fit of madness that I can only assume was brought on by having too much free time, I signed on as an adjunct instructor at a private college in San Diego. I have taught at one college or another ever since.

I've spent the past 11 years teaching evening English courses at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Obviously, I've greatly enjoyed my tenure there, or I wouldn't have stuck around for so long. (I'm not sure what I expected to find, but I've been astonished by the intelligence, background, and experience of the faculty at SCC. There are several PhDs on the English department staff, and most of the rest of us have Master's degrees. All of them love teaching and all care about, admire, and respect the students. Every single person I've met has impressed me with their knowledge, erudition, and dedication. Incredible group of people. Lincoln and the surrounding area is very lucky to have them.)

But now, as some of you know, I'm planning to retire from the publishing company where I've worked for several years. (I took a few breaks in between, during one of which Lesley and I moved to Fort Worth, Texas for a year or so. Although there are some beautiful spots in Texas, Fort Worth is not one of them; it's basically Los Angeles with cowboy hats and, somehow, even worse drivers.) I then came back to Lincoln to work for (about which more in a moment) and eventually went back to work for the publishing company, which is where I am today.

Anyway, after retiring, Lesley and I will head to Depoe Bay, Oregon, where we'll move in for the time being with Lesley's mother. Andi is a long way from doddering, but she is getting on enough that she could use some help around the place; Lesley and I love spending time with her, we love her beautiful home, and we love coastal Oregon—and this will also put us closer to Lesley's father in Kingston, Washington. Definitely a win-win for all concerned. To be honest, we can hardly wait.

Once we get to Oregon, we'd like to do some traveling and have ordered a trailer in which to do that traveling. We'll pick up our 19' Escape in August, and then do a bit of a "shakedown cruise" in Canada with Lesley's dad and stepmom, yet another thing to which we're very much looking forward. (I'm sorry. Really. I tried, but I just couldn't bring myself to end that last sentence with a preposition, Winston Churchill be damned. Thus, the awkward—but correct, dammit—sentence structure.)

And now comes the cliff. (Remember the cliff? I promised you a cliff at the very beginning, some 600 words ago. It's a metaphorical cliff, of course. I mean, if one is to leap from a cliff, a metaphorical cliff would be best, right?)

The question is: How am I to teach and travel? And the answer is: By teaching online courses! One must still dedicate just as much (or possibly even more) time to teaching an online course as to a face-to-face (F2F) course, but one can dedicate that time from just about anywhere. (Or at least, anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi signal.)

So, I'm about to embark on my first real online teaching experience. Next quarter, I'll be teaching the online version of an SCC course entitled Beginning College Reading & Writing. I've taught the course many times before, but always F2F.

Oddly, I do have some background. As mentioned, I spent a couple of years working for, which was a commercial spinoff of UNL's CLASS project, an enterprise in which educators and educational technologists came together to design—you guessed it—online classes. I helped design some of the courses and the software that delivered them, and tried to coordinate the efforts of an amazing group of instructional designers, programmers, illustrators, and other talented folk. Which means that I helped blaze the very trail that leads to the cliff off of which I'm about to jump!

So I suppose that it's only fitting that I come full circle and find myself once again working with what was once called "distance learning," these days abetted by some incredible technological developments that allow me to chat with students in real time, hold virtual "office hours" that include live videoconferencing, and engage students in ongoing discussions and debates (or even arguments) designed to help make them better critical thinkers and more accomplished readers and writers.

I'm looking forward to the new experience, and to seeing if I can make an online course as interesting, as relevant, and as interactive as the F2F courses I've been teaching for years. Stay tuned.


I get asked this a lot: No, I do not require my students to buy my books! That would be tacky. But I do sometimes assign them to read my blog, where they might accidentally stumble across a link to one of my books. And where one could, if one wished, purchase one (or several dozen) of those books. If one wanted.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Photos Are Made With Your Eyes, Not Your Camera. Who Knew?

It pains me immensely to admit this, but my wife is a better photographer than I. Much better. (There's no need to spread this around, of course.) And this is in spite of the fact that I've studied photography fairly extensively. Worked with a fine wedding and portrait photographer back in California during my college days, while employed at a photo lab in Pasadena, CA. (Hope you're doing well, Jack Belcher. And that your 1970 Ford Pinto is still running.) I've even taught photography, because it turns out that as a first-year teacher, when the principal asks if you can teach this or that subject, you say, "Pfffft! Absolutely! Why, if I hadn't become an
Sunset over Holmes Lake in Lincoln, NE. Click
image to enlarge. (Photo by
Lesley Jackson Scher)
English teacher, I definitely would have become a biogenetics researcher. Or a painter. Or possibly an astronaut. So, yeah! Bring on those science, art, history, or home economics classes!" (But no math, please. There are limits to just how much fakery I can manage.)

Luckily, I actually did know something about photography.

But not as much as Lesley, apparently. In spite of the fact that technically I know more than she about rules of thirds and golden means and horizon placement and F-stops and reciprocity and the like, she can take (a real photographer would say "make") better photos than I. Consistently. And she can do it with a three-year-old Android smart phone camera, even when I'm using the fancy Olympus digital with the awesome zoom lens and the dozens of nifty attachments that I just had to have.

Actually, I should have known that the technology doesn't make the photographer. When Ansel Adams taught classes, he often had his students peering through cardboard paper towel rolls for days before he allowed them to use real cameras. It was a low-tech approach, but what he was doing was teaching them to really see what they were looking at. And when my students would ask if they should get motor drives (sigh… it's a film-camera thing; you young people wouldn't understand), I knew what they really wanted. They wanted to be able to go home and tell Mom and Dad that Mr. Scher had said that they should run out and get motor drives for class. (They made a slick, ratchet-y, whirring sound that today's cameras approximate electronically. All the cool people had motor drives.) But I didn't tell them that. I told them that they didn't need motor drives. I told them that if they were taking bad photos, a motor drive would simply allow them to take bad photos much more quickly. And I was right.

But now, I have digital cameras. And they do indeed allow me to take bad photos much more quickly than before. Why, even with a motor drive, I could never have taken bad photos this quickly! It's a miracle of modern technology!! Digital cameras have made mediocrity attainable, and much more easily than ever before. This is a great thing for those of us striving for mediocrity.

TANGENT WARNING: By the way, I really miss darkrooms. The slightly musty, humid air. The smell of fixer and stop-bath. Strips of negatives wiped down with Photo-Flo and hung with clothespins on a wire strung across the (always too-small) space. Trays and test strips, filters and squeegees. The orange or red bulb casting a dim light. The paper safe with the door that always jammed. Enlargers with motorized headsnot that I could ever have afforded one of the motorized monsters. When we moved to Lincoln in 1992, one of the first things I did was . . .  Well, I was going to say that I built a darkroom, but what I really did was cause a darkroom to be built. By a very intimidating fellow whose first comment when looking at the framing I'd done so far was, "So, hey… OK if I tear all of this crap out?" So my contribution was limited to writing a check. Actually, I probably didn't even do that; most likely, Lesley  wrote the check. (Lesley is not only a better photographer than I, she is also much better with money.)

So, go figure . . .  Apparently the technology isn't what makes a good photographer. Or programmer. Or mechanic or teacher or cook or writer. And I guess that's worth keeping in mind.