Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Call Me Brophy

For the past several years, I've been inviting students to call me "Matthew," but rarely do they take me up on this offer. They do, however, often become comfortable enough around me to refer to me, in my presence, the same way they do when talking among themselves--simply as "Brophy." So this semester, I'm starting off on that foot: Call me Brophy.

My plan to make this reciprocal is to address students also by their last names (unless they object--I have no problem calling students by whatever name they like. One year, I called a student "Yoshi" all semester, at his request.)

So what else might you like to know about me? This past year, I moved to Reading, PA with my wife, Yuriko, who works at Albright College. I also ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 3:56 (not particularly fast--but very good for me). I've been married since 2013, which is also the year my wife and I adopted our dog, Kima. Here's a nice pic of Y&K, napping together:

I've been teaching at DCCC since 2010, and along the way, I've reinvented how I teach ENG 100 several times. While I'm sure I'll continue to experiment with it, I've settled upon a few principles, which I think work well:
  1. Writing is an art. And the way you get better at any art is to practice it. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it. But you have to find the energy and the motivation to keep writing.
  2. Feedback is more meaningful than a grade. To slap a grade on an in-progress work of art seems wrong to me. Receiving a grade for a writing assignment can be more discouraging than helpful. Therefore, I don't give grades for individual assignments. Instead, I give lots of detailed feedback--much of which is positive. Even when I offer suggestions for edits and revisions, I try to keep the tone positive. I believe students need encouragement, not harsh judgment, to improve their writing.
  3. Anxiety makes learning harder. Writing is already a difficult, complex skill; trying to produce good writing when you're anxious about how you will be judged can seem impossible. That's why I offer a "Guaranteed B" for students who abide by all the terms of the syllabus. This should take your mind off grades, so you are free to take risks, experiment, and be creative in your writing.
  4. Writers need freedom. Both in writing and in school more broadly, students can lose motivation when they don't have the freedom to follow their curiosity. I try to provide writing prompts that are open-ended enough so that you can choose topics to write about that you are personally invested in. You are also free to come up with your own writing prompts. When you write about what you care about, the experience (and the writing) is way better.
  5. Writing can feel good. Life is often full of distractions, stress, and chaos. Sitting down to write can be a great way to hit "pause" on life--to stop for a moment and reflect on the many things that have been running through your mind. Writing can help you gain some control and some perspective on your own thoughts. The result can be a calmer, more thoughtful and balanced life. 
Looking forward to getting to know all of you over the next few months, and I especially look forward to seeing the imaginative things you can do with your writing!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Marine Corps Marathon 2015

The Backstory: I don't have much history running marathons. I ran my first in 2013--the Delaware and Lehigh Heritage Marathon--and although I finished, it was pretty ugly. I battled some sharp knee pain during the second half, which really slowed me down, and my time was a sluggish 4:45. Last year, rather than adjust my training and try again, I decided to go bigger, and ran a 50k, with a similar result--lots of pain, and a very slow finishing time (6:14).

This year, one of my goals was to get more comfortable with marathon distance. In March, I ran a trail marathon at Blue Marsh (sloooowwww: 5:31), and then in April, I ran from my former residence in Phoenixville to Philadelphia in about 4:42. In both instances, my pace dramatically fell off after 20 miles.

Over the summer, after moving back to Reading, I did a lot of elevation work in order to get ready for another trail marathon--the Megatransect in Lock Haven, PA. That race was incredibly challenging, but after finishing it in reasonable shape, I hoped that a flat, road marathon would seem relatively easy. In September, I started doing some speed work, following a Hal Higdon training plan, aiming for a sub-4 time, with a 9:00/mile race pace. All the training runs were pretty easy, coming off what I'd been doing all summer, but I was still concerned about being able to maintain the race pace after 20 miles.

Getting There: My in-laws live in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., so Yuriko and I were planning on spending the weekend of the race with them. She, however, had to work a few hours on Saturday, so we weren't able to leave until after 2pm the day before the marathon. Of course, we hit some traffic between Baltimore and Washington, and then finding parking at the Convention Center was a pain. Eventually I had my bib and long-sleeve tech shirt and we were heading to Maryland.

Sunday morning, I was up at 5am; Yuriko's dad gave me a lift to the nearby Metro Station. On the train, I drank a 5 Hour Energy and ate a Cliff Bar. I got to the Pentagon Station around 6:45. Then I spent the next hour waiting among the mob to get through security. It was raining a little bit, but not too bad. By the time I got through, it was nearly time to start. I hit a portajohn and made my way to my "wave."

The Race: Unfortunately, my wave had already started, so I was stuck in some slow congestion. With 30,000 runners all starting within 28 minutes of each other, the first few miles around Arlington were rather crowded. There were also a couple small hills. But I found some seams and got through the first 5K with an average pace of 9:03.

During mile 5, the course crossed the Potomac River into Georgetown. At this point, the field opened up somewhat, and I didn't have to make as many lateral moves to keep my pace. (At the 10k mark, my average pace was 9:05.) As the course moved north, up towards the National Zoo, I noticed that there was about a .25 mile difference between the mileage on my watch and the mile markers in the race. I realized this meant that I was going slightly slower than the average pace indicated by my watch, which had been settling in at 8:52. I tried to pick it up just a bit, and I ended up bringing my average pace down to 9:01 (official time, not watch time) by the 20k mark.

After the turnaround point in the middle of mile 8, the course returns toward central DC. My wife and father-in-law said they would look for me behind the Lincoln Memorial, so I tried to keep an eye out. I would have breezed right by them, though, because I didn't see them until Yuriko called out my name. Seeing a couple friendly faces gave me a boost, and I kept it going as the race headed south down to Hains Point.

Right around mile 12, I approached what was, for me, the most memorable moment in the race. The group Wear Blue: Run to Remember had lined both sides of the course with images of veterans who were killed in action over the past fourteen years. The race suddenly got very quiet, as all the runners trotted along in silence, looking at the faces of fallen—so young, so many.

Hains Point was also the midway point of the race, and I picked up a Cliff gel for later. (I had already eaten a couple Huma gels which I had brought myself. I should've stuck with them--when I ended up eating the Clif gel--Vanilla--it was grossly sweet, like cake frosting.) As we headed up the other side of the peninsula, I sort of wanted to pee, but I didn't want to stop. I had been drinking water mixed with Coco Hydro since the start (I was carrying two 20 oz bottles on my UD vest), and I had taken in close to 30 ounces. I decided not to stop, and to put off stopping as long as possible. (I never did stop, and I couldn't believe how long of a walk it was from the finish line to the nearest portajohn.)

When I got back to the Mall, I still felt great as I cruised past the Smithsonian buildings and the Capitol. I tried to look for Yuriko and her dad in front of the Air & Space Museum, but somehow I missed them and they missed me.

Exiting the Mall, the course headed back to the Potomac, and I passed some lady spectator holding up a couple lunch baggies, calling out, “Peanut butter and jelly!” I grabbed one as I passed and ate it while running over the bridge back to Arlington. PB&J is one of my favorite aid station eats, and I was excited to pick up this bite when I most needed it, quite unexpectedly from an unofficial volunteer.

I passed the 20 mile mark right around this time, and I was happy that my pace hadn't fallen off at all yet (8:59 pace through the first 21 miles). Though once I finished the bridge and started the final 10k in Arlington, I could feel some pain creeping into my right knee and foot. I tried to just stay loose and keep it moving, though I could feel myself slowing down a bit around mile 22.

Dunkin Donuts sponsored an aid station around mile 23, and there were Marines there passing out little cups of munchkins. I grabbed one and ate a munchkin. How much damage could one munchkin do with only 5k to go?

And like magic, the knee pain started to dissolve. I've heard runners talk about the ups and downs they feel during long races, but in my experience, in the past, when I had started to feel bad, it only got worse. This was the first time I experienced going from bad to better. As I passed the 25 mile marker, I was actually able to pick up my pace (ran the last 2.4 miles at a 8:44 pace). At the very end, there is an annoying hill, which is really not that much of a hill (50 feet?), but of course after 26 miles, it feels pretty steep. I charged up with all I had left, making sure I got in under my goal time. (Goal: anything under 4:00; official time: 3:56 -- that's 3,349 overall out of nearly 30,000.)

Swag: Nice, warm, long-sleeve tech shirt; snack box from Wegmans with pear slices, chips, trail mix, and a protein bar; gatorade and bananas; finisher medal.

Overall: It was a great day. My only bad experience was standing in that disorganized mass of people trying to get through security. Seems like there must be a more efficient way to do that, but of course I understand it must be a pretty substantial challenge with a field of 30,000 runners.

Up next: Oley Valley Country Classic 10 Miler, November 1st.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Fall Harvest 5K in College Heights, Reading

I don't run 5Ks very often--I like longer distances and trail races, typically, where I don't feel so bad about plodding along at a slowish pace, stopping to pee or eat something, or walking up a steep hill. But this weekend there was a 5K less than a mile from home, so I figured why not jog down the hill and give it a shot. My wife, Yuriko, said she was game, too.

Injury #1: I wanted to jog that .7 miles to the start in order to warm-up (racetime temp was a chilly 47 degrees), but Y wanted to save her energy, so she planned to cruise on over in her Smart Car. On her way to the driver's seat, however, she was stung by a bee. FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HER LIFE!! Sure, it's unlucky to be stung by a bee before a 5K (though not as unlucky as stomping on a yellow jacket nest a few miles into your first 50K), but it's pretty darned lucky to make it [wife's age redacted] years before your first bee sting.

Turnout: No one showed up for this race. I mean, we were there, and a handful of other people, but turnout was super small. I'm bad at estimating crowds, but I'm guessing...50...at most? You know what that means: easy award!

Course: The course started at the corner of Hampden Blvd and Rockland St, just barely within Reading city limits, and headed down Rockland, wiggling over to 13th Street. This initial downhill made for a fast start, as we lost 100 feet of elevation in the first 2/3 of a mile. Then it was a steady, gradual incline as we headed south on 13th Street, past Albright College, toward Reading High School. The incline continued as we made a sharp left on Hampden Blvd, heading northeast, back toward the start. The extended incline was about 130 feet over 1.3 miles. Then it was downhill again, as the course turned left onto Bern Street and wrapped around the Albright baseball field, back over to Rockland, and up the hill we ran down to start. I think it was about 200 feet of gain total.

The Competition: Two fairly fast runners showed up--one man, one woman--and they pulled ahead of me pretty much right away. As the race progressed, the man pulled away from the woman, and the woman pulled away from me. She wasn't catching him, and I wasn't catching her. Didn't see what happened behind me, but nobody passed me. Pretty boring, I guess, but I liked it--I had never been in a race where no one passed me. Nor had I ever finished top 3. This wasn't my fastest 5K ever, but it was my 2nd fastest (22:21, official time). Afterwards, the two runners who finished ahead of me were talking about how hilly the course was, which I found hard to believe. For a trail runner, one 70 foot hill and a gradual 130 foot incline is pretty damned flat.

Wife's PR: Yuriko doesn't love running, but she's been trying to get into it for awhile now, mostly because she's super sweet and wants to share in everything that is important to me. So she usually runs/walks these 5Ks, but this was definitely her fastest (35:15), and I think her first in which she averaged under 12 min / mile! All after the first bee sting of her life!

Injury #2: After I finished, I jogged back along the course to find Yuriko and be her "pacer" for the last 1/2 mile or so. Right before the finish line, I turned off the road (since I had already finished), but tripped over the curb and scraped up my leg. (Trail runner will find a way to bleed!) Nothing a little witch hazel can't clean up.

Goodies: Nice burgundy t-shirt. Pretzels and apples. Cash hot-dog-bar ($1 per), which we did not try. Pumpkin carving. Pictures with the Reading Royals mascot.

Critique: A little uncomfortable running on 13th Street and Hampden Blvd without any traffic control. Not many runners.

Award: I won 2nd male overall. Yuriko just missed an age group award.

Up next: Marine Corps Marathon, 10/25/15

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

School = Prison?

You've probably heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, but this week, my students will be reading and blogging about an essay that argues school (at least how it's currently conceived) is itself a kind of prison. Perhaps people who have spent time in actual prisons would object to that hyperbole, as well as fume over the unappreciated opportunities of those who have access to quality schools, however pedagogically flawed those schools may be. But still, I think Peter Gray, author of "School Is a Prison--and Damaging Our Kids", has a point. For most of us, school involves a lot of discipline, a lot of coercion, and not very much freedom. And generally speaking, that's not an ideal environment for learning.

Gray argues that the school environment is not only poorly designed for learning, but that it also causes "serious psychological damage" to many young people. Not only does it arrest their creative development and curiosity, by emphasizing conformity, obedience, and standardization, but it creates endless anxiety about individual performance--a perpetual fear of failure, an aversion for risk-taking, a constant questioning of one's self-worth. The obsession with test scores and grades results in students who feel relentlessly judged.

I am in complete agreement with Gray about the danger of using points and grades as motivators for student learning. By the time students make it to college (and let's not forget that many, many don't), they have internalized the idea that grades are all that matter. Some students are obsessed with doing whatever they can to get an "A", while others are focused on doing only whatever is minimally necessary to pass. But if any activity or assignment isn't linked to a grade, the conclusion for either student is that it's irrelevant.

In this troubling scenario, learning becomes "that annoying stuff" that one needs to do (or fake) in order to get the desired grade. That's a pretty toxic attitude to have about one's education, but I think it's a pretty normal reaction to a system that is so reliant on using grades as rewards and punishments.

What does Gray suggest would be a better way? Let students take control of their own learning. Let them choose what they study. Give them back their freedom. If students are motivated to learn about X because X is interesting to them, we won't need to use grades (or extrinsic motivators) in order to get them to learn.

The objections are pretty standard: some kids need more structured environments; some kids are naturally lazy and wouldn't choose to learn anything; kids' curiosity isn't enough to guide them to the things they need to learn to function in the real world.

Maybe some of those objections are valid. Maybe not. I'm interested to hear what my students have to say.

I do know, from my own experience, that "forcing" someone to learn how to write better generally ends badly. For my students who generally associate writing with tedium, harsh judgment, and arbitrary rules--which is most of my students--I try to remind them of the pleasure that can come from writing when you actually have something to say, something that you care about, and an audience that is willing to listen, and to listen generously. When that happens, it's not about the grade. It's about the power of language. It's about being heard. It's about connecting with people. And that's so much more.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Do "shitty first drafts" have to feel so shitty?

For the past few semesters, I've been assigning Anne Lamott's much-anthologized excerpt, "Shitty First Drafts", from her book on writing, Bird by Bird (1995). The first time I asked students to read and discuss it, one student (Doug), commented that he enjoyed it because it made him feel like he was "not alone" in having to fight off so much self-doubt and panic every time he was asked to produce any substantial amount of writing. Even professional writers feel this way, Lamott argues, especially early in the writing process, when our half-formed ideas look so pathetic to our inner-critic.

I admire how Lamott normalizes the "shittyness" (or is it "shittiness"?) of a first draft--emphasizing how it takes multiple drafts, even for experienced writers, to produce their best work. She urges us to give ourselves permission to write imperfectly, even badly--that this is part of the process, part of the normal work of getting started--and if we trust in this process, eventually we'll be able to transform those first initial scribbles into something worthwhile, maybe even something artful.

Yet I wonder if she does too good a job of normalizing the anxiety that so often accompanies this painstaking process. Do we have to be filled with panic and dread each time we start from scratch? I'd hate for my students to read this and think, "Writing will always be painful, even if I get good at it--even if I get so good that I can write a book about it." Is there a way to do this, so that we don't feel "despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron" each and every time?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Community College Is Real College -- Just Ask Tom Hanks

Earlier this year, the New York Times published a personal essay by Tom Hanks, in which he nostalgically recounts his experiences at Chabot College in the mid-1970s. Chabot is a community college in northern California, and at the time Hanks attended, it was "all free but for the effort and the cost of used textbooks." No doubt the textbooks were way cheaper then, too.

As a community college professor, I was touched by Hanks's insistence that the open accessibility of his college didn't make it any less authentic of a college experience. He emphasizes both the diversity of the classes and the student body, and underscores what a transformative experience it was for him. While not every class was a gem (which is certainly the case at any college), many stayed with him for years, and one--Herb Kennedy's "Drama in Performance"--changed his life. Ultimately, Hanks concludes, community college "made me what I am today."

Hanks uses his personal experience, along with a concise bit of argumentation, to endorse President Obama's plan to subsidize community college tuition for all students who can keep their GPA above a 2.0. This proposal seems to have stalled since it was first announced, but I hope that Congress will eventually see the wisdom behind such an investment. As Hanks notes, community is real college, and it's the only kind of college that's accessible to many aspiring students. Why not make it a possibility for even more?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Allow me to introduce myself...

I have a terrible habit of forgetting to introduce myself to my students on the first day of classes. I am so eager to get to know them (and to start the tricky work of matching names to faces) that I forget to simply say, "Hello, my name is Matthew," and then, "You can call me Matthew." Sometimes it's 30 or 40 minutes before I get to that.

Not this year. I'm introducing myself in writing. (Apt for an English professor, right?) I might mix in a few pictures, too. Here's me posing with a Hawaiian snail:

Please call me "Matthew." If we become friends, you can call me "Matt." If not, "Matthew." If you feel more comfortable being super-formal, then "Professor Brophy" works fine, too. Your call.

I've been teaching at Delaware County Community College since 2010. Before that, I was teaching at Binghamton University, in upstate New York, where I completed my Ph.D. (I suppose you could also call me Dr. Brophy, but please keep in mind that for all medical emergencies, I would recommend a "real" doctor.)

My undergraduate degree (a B.A. in literature) was earned at Bard College (also in upstate New York), and I mostly grew up outside of Albany, NY. I was, however, born in Massachusetts, which is where my parents grew up, and that explains how I ended up a Red Sox fan, despite all my days in New York State.

My parents were not college graduates. My father was not even a high school graduate. My sister and I, like many of you, were the first in our family to go to college. We had no idea what we were doing when we jumped in. But everything turned out ok.

Shortly after I started working at DCCC, I met the love of my life. In 2013, we got married. She made a 1,001 origami cranes. I made a funny speech.

Also in 2013, we adopted a puppy and named her Kima. Downingtown grads will be interested to know that we think she is part whippet. Whatever her breed, she is incredibly athletic. I often take her running and hiking with me in the woods.

Just a few months ago, my wife, Kima, and I moved into a new home up in Reading. So I have a bit of an annoying commute to work. But it's worth it--we love our home, and we can actually afford it.

My goal for this semester is to do as much as I can to teach "stress-free" classes. Maybe that's an impossible goal, but I think reading/writing/thinking/learning is all fun stuff, and it doesn't have to be done in a nerve-wracking, anxiety-producing manner. We'll see how it goes.

Anyways, that's me. Looking forward to learning about you!