Category Archives: Teaching

Where is the Wisconsin Idea?


The Wisconsin Idea is pretty simple. It means that whatever wonderful stuff goes on in a UW classroom, or lab, or program—that wonderful stuff should be shared. It has to leave campus. Almost everyone who talks about the Wisconsin Idea quotes an early UW president, Charles Van Hise, who said “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.” (I misquote that in my head as the “beneficent arm” and I kind of picture a weird cartoon in my head of a giant arm reaching in through someone’s kitchen window.  Now that I think about it, not really what I’m going for here. Nevermind about the arm.)

The Wisconsin Idea is the basis for the UW Extension, and all kinds of community service, all over the state. It’s a huge part of what makes the UW and Wisconsin wonderful.

Sometimes people talk about “sifting and winnowing” as the Wisconsin Idea, but technically, that’s from a plaque from the Board of Regents, or at least some of them, in 1894, and I think it’s the UW System mission statement (or maybe just UW Madison?), and it’s a part of state law. (Changing that is what a certain so-and-so called a “drafting error,” but which is actually a totally different category of error.)

So that’s what it is.  I was wondering how cool it would be if we could talk to each other not so much about WHAT it is, but WHERE it is.

I asked for help from these youngsters, who found the Wisconsin Idea in Arena.


What I’m hoping is that more people will find the Wisconsin Idea, and make videos, and challenge other people to find it. People can use the hashtag #wefoundtheWisconsinIdea and tag me @MarnieDresser and post on Where is the Wisconsin Idea?.

The format I’m imagining for the videos is pretty short & simple:

We found the Wisconsin Idea in _____________.

(Explain how something from the UW helped some way, any way, OUTSIDE the UW.)

We challenge _______ and __________ and __________ to find the Wisconsin Idea!

(Merriment and confetti entirely appropriate.  Youngsters and community members and current students and former students most definitely appropriate.)

**I’m especially hoping 4-Hers will do videos because 1) 4H is awesome, 2)4H can be VERY creative, and  3)4H just simply IS the Wisconsin Idea.

Who’s the audience for this?  The people who make the videos–it’s a way for them to articulate for themselves what the Wisconsin Idea really does for them, right where they are.  Also for faculty and staff–there are a lot of negative messages out there about the work we do, and these should all be positive.

Beyond that, if there are people who don’t know what the idea is, or don’t understand why it’s important, well–these videos should make that clearer.

Will this spread like I want it to?  Will my one little raindrop be joined by others and turn into a rainshower? A downpour? A gullywasher?

Will other voices join my voice, or will it just be this one little voice? (Can’t help thinking of Barry Manilow.  Love that song, actually.  But I won’t post a video because the work he’s had done just makes me miss his 1970s nose.)

Maybe it’ll only ever be this one little video.  Even so–the Wisconsin Idea is out there. I know it is.  Want to help me show where?



Once Again The Wire Explains My Life to Me


Yes, once again The Wire has helped me figure out my life. WHY WHY WHY have I seen an uptick in essays that have a gorgeous structure—intro/thesis, clear transitions, academic style, good introductions of sources, clear citations AND YET almost entirely random quotes that DO NOT MATCH the general statements that precede them?

I’m just guessing on account of teaching to the test.


Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 8.44.47 PM

The Wire Season 4, Episode 9, “Know Your Place”

In this episode of The Wire (NO SPOILERS! I’m only on Season 4 for chrissakes) Pryzbylewski is lamenting having to teach students to begin and end each answer in a formulaic way, and somehow KAZAAM! everything was clear to me.

I have clever students who are (as Ken Bain would point out) strategic enough to do what they need to do to get the grade they want, so they learn the format, and the tone, and YET:

It looks something like this (totally made up, not based on a particular student paper):

General statement: Even though girls are thought of as being cleaner and neater than boys, that’s not always true.

Quote used: “RQ1: How do male college students’ self-reported hand washing behaviors compare to perceptions of hand washing prevalence in the population of male students on campus?”

Or, even, “In a scholarly, peer-reviewed article called ‘Testing the Effects of Social Norms and Behavioral Privacy on Hand Washing: A Field Experiment,’ Lapinski et al. ask “how do male college students’ self-reported hand washing behaviors compare to perceptions of hand washing prevalence in the population of male students on campus?”‘(Lapinski et al. 341)*,

p.s. I’ve lost track of the whole single quote/double quote thing.

p.p.s. *I totally made up that page number

THE POINT IS, if you’re just skimming, the way I’m sure I would if I were an AP exam reader (and the way in which I’m sure actual AP readers don’t skim, right?), it sounds fine. But if you actually read for content, for substance, for MEANING, Jaysus, it don’t work at all. I mean, Jeebus.

Which reminds me of a Bible verse: 2 Timothy Chapter3, verses  (written, as we like to say, by the Apostle Paul to the lovely young Timothy):

“3 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will [all kinds of stuff Paul is bothered by, some of which I am bothered by, some not so much] having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.”

A form of godliness, but denying its power. That so much applies to churches, and “godly” folks, but also language, to quote scripture: “The word of god is seldom, and  tremblingly partook.”

Did Paul get exhausted? This exhausts me. Have nothing to do with such  people.



The Everbearing Hump of Midterm

A carefully cultivated, fully composted first crop
of green beans–so much better than canned.

That one tunnel with the bend
where you always panic briefly and want to stop
when you can’t see either end.

A subterranean pimple, perfectly round,
on the cusp of emerging, not quite ready to pop.

The good, the bad, the ugly, the suspense,
the tension, the heat of it, the standoff.

A phoenix dragging and puking and down
and not yet gloriously finding its lift.

IF I DIE IN MY CLASSROOM—a teacher’s ballad

I hope that right before it happens
I do something heroic,
but knowing me and how I panic,
I more than probably won’t.

I hope I’m wearing something cute.
I wonder about my hair.
I hope I look good on the floor.
I hope I say more than “don’t shoot.”

I keep on saying hope.
I hope, I hope, I hope.
But hope? I actually don’t have much.
I think it’s mostly luck—

If I have to die in class, I hope
I’ve just said something noble
that really made them think.
I hope I’m really quotable.

What else? I didn’t stay up late
to finish grading papers.
I made love to my husband instead—
I barely let him out of bed.

When I dropped my son off at school,
“I love you,” “I love you too”
is what we said. It’s what we say
so many times every day.

I hope my death makes people work
to figure out how to stop
the massacres. But if Sandy Hook
didn’t, my death won’t help.

I keep on saying hope.
I hope, I hope, I hope.
But hope? I actually don’t have much.
I think it’s mostly luck—

the upset student isn’t mine,
the unhinged parent isn’t here,
the disgruntled coworker is fine
(since his new meds he’s better).

When I lock the door and pull it shut
I tell my students that’s it—
that’s all I can do to keep them safe.
I hope I remember to pray.

I keep on saying hope.
I hope, I hope, I hope.
But hope? I actually don’t have much.
I think it’s mostly luck—

I have this badass dream.
I make myself a deputy.
I buy a gun. I take a class.
I shoot at cans.

I buy a fetching little holster.
I wear it when I teach.
I see the bad guy reach.
I blow him away. I’m faster.

You don’t have to know me well
to know how unlikely that is.
Much more likely I’d shoot myself.
Accidentally shoot someone else.

If I have to die in class,
I hope it isn’t soon.
I hope it’s me having a heart attack.
I hope it’s not a gun.


Two Wisconsin legislators started the week off with a bang by introducing a bill that would repeal the ability of University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Technical Colleges institutions to ban firearms on campus. They are Republican, obviously.

Other Republicans have supported them by saying a gun is a tool the same way a smartphone is a tool. Let’s talk about tools. (Cf my friend Chuck Rybak on tools.)

Three Democratic legislators have now proposed a bill that bans concealed carry on campuses.

I think it’s a cowboy fantasy that more guns make good people safer, but I get the fantasy. I find it really appealing. Two of my favorite shows ever have Timothy Olyphant shooting all kinds of bad guys. If I could teach next door to Seth Bullock? Or Raylan Givens? Hell yeah, let’s arm the teachers and the students.

This photo is by Prashant Gupta. It appeared in this story:

This photo is by Prashant Gupta. (Click for story it appeared in.)

But you know what? None of my colleagues inspire me in that particular way. And my students? Well, actually–some of them are pretty bad-ass. If I knew for sure they’d be on my side….

Since I’m wondering who’ll protect me, should I arm myself? I looked up the requirements for concealed carry in Wisconsin. I’d need to take a firearms safety class. I’ve been thinking about it, actually–not because I want to own a handgun, but because I want to shoot one. I have a novel that has guns in it, so I’m curious.

But that’s research. In real life, I’m a dorky, middle-aged woman with poor hand-eye coordination. No one who knows me would feel safer if I were armed.

Oh–and then there’s the question of evidence. My friend Ryan Martin has a great blog, and he points out some facts

  • more guns = more gun violence
  • more guns = more suicides

One of the pages he cites is fascinating to me. It has a long section on why the estimates of successful self-defense with guns are probably way over-reported, but also this:

“The study found that in incidents where a victim used a gun in self-defense, the likelihood of suffering an injury was 10.9 percent. Had the victim taken no action at all, the risk of injury was virtually identical: 11 percent.”

And this:
“What’s more, the study found that while the likelihood of injury after brandishing a firearm was reduced to 4.1 percent, the injury rate after those defensive gun uses was similar to using any other weapon (5.3 percent), and was still greater than if the person had run away or hid (2.4 percent) or called the police (2.2 percent).”

(I plan to look up that study to read it for myself–haven’t taken the time yet, but I will.)

So if I’m paying attention to that, I get a very strong urge to start practicing using my rolling backpack as a weapon (I did mention I’m a dorky middle-aged woman).  So even though the UWPD and the FBI recommend running or hiding and only fighting as a last resort, hm….

(I need to keep working to get in shape so I can actually run, btw.)

Let me be clear about one thing–I think it’s morally repugnant to blame victims of violence for not fighting back. (I’m not even going to link to people who say things like that. Shame on them.)

In any case–don’t ask me about guns on campus.  Ask law enforcement officials. UW Police are against it. And if police officers are too liberal for you, listen to this guy, quoted in an article from Wisconsin Public Radio:

“…Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, said he didn’t see evidence of greater danger. ‘(Science) is really unanimous in showing that concealed carry doesn’t lead to any increase in gun crime,’ he said. ‘The debate is really over whether it reduces gun crime.'”

(Note:  I do want to research what he says about science & concealed carry.)



“[Esenberg] also suggested that campus authorities, as opposed to the Legislature, might be better positioned to decide on concealed carry policies for universities. ‘I don’t think you have to pass a bill about everything,’ he said.”

“I don’t think you have to pass a bill about everything,” he said. That cracked me up.  An actual libertarian kind of scolding repubs for over-legislating.

None of this is funny. Too many people have died. Too many children have died. But this guy is funny, and I turn to humor, because nothing else apparently works. And it’s not so much that humor works, but that it makes me feel better. I think nothing works, thus the general lack of hope.

We can’t work together to figure it out. People I love and/or respect  (sometimes both! really!) disagree with me in part or in whole about what ought to be done.

What I’m sure we’ll keep doing is disagreeing. What I wonder if we’ll ever do is work together to figure it out.

In the meantime, I’ll wake myself up, like I did this morning, with a poem forming in my head about “if I die in my classroom.”

Congratulations on the First Day of Class

Congrats for showing up today. I’m serious.
I’m really glad you’re here. We’ve got a lot to do–
class roster, introductions, syllabus–
I’m not sure how all this business comes across to you,
so I wanted to take a minute to let you know
I know for some of you it took a hell of a lot
to sit at that desk. You’re far away from home.
You fought and survived a war. A sexual assault.
Your mind is a genius of self-sabotage.
Your body somehow fights you every step.
You know how hard it was, so you be the judge
of just how much applause you ought to get.

Of course this is just the very first achievement
we’re aiming for. Good work on that assignment,
good midterm grades, a full semester wrapped
up neatly like a present for whatever holiday you happen
to celebrate at the end of December. Before all that,
let’s just enjoy a good beginning. Congrats.

Toot your own horn!

Toot your own horn!

I’m posting this in the spirit of a post I liked a lot recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “10 Things This Instructor Loves.” It was a response to a blog post about professors’ pet peeves (and there are numerous versions of that list floating around).

People post things on my wall sometimes that have snarky comments from professors, and I usually admit that I’ve thought things like that sometimes. But I try not to say them to students. I even try not to be passive aggressive in my verbal and written comments to students–this after a good friend cracked up laughing when I said I sometimes wrote “spell check should have caught that” in student papers. He called it for what it was, a passive aggressive comment (I hadn’t even realized that).

I do try to be direct and honest. I did tell a student once she was as baffling to me as if a giant mushroom had sprouted outside the classroom while we were inside. She was coming to class and being disruptive, but not turning in enough to come anywhere close to passing. It turned out that she had A LOT going on in her life that I had no clue about, and she kept coming to class because she didn’t want her friends to know she wasn’t passing. I’m glad I was honest and told her she baffled me. I can’t make up my mind how I feel about the giant mushroom comment.

I keep trying to remember that we’re all like a bunch of icebergs crunching around together in the classroom. We can only see the top bits of each other’s lives, but there’s a lot more going on under the surface.

Is there efficiencies? Cheese is cheese and sports is sports and college is college.

Earlier this week it was reported that Wisconsin legislators had begun quietly and unofficially discussing” a possible merger between the UW Colleges, a system of 13 2-year campuses that award liberal arts associate degrees, and the Wisconsin Technical Colleges, a system of 16 campuses that award a variety of certificates and primarily technical associate degrees.

Now that the discussions have been widely reported, the quietness has come into question, and since it is an actual committee with a committee chair, the inquiries seem relatively official.

In considering the UW Colleges and the Wisconsin Technical Colleges, it is important to note that their funding systems, missions, and organizational structures are very different but the current UW System President, Ray Cross, presided over a similar merger in Minnesota, so some interested parties wonder if the merger is inevitable. Given that this is the same legislature that recently dispensed tenure and shared governance with lightning-fast dispatch during the budget process, some interested parties wonder how quickly this will come about, rather than whether it will come about.

Reporting on these discussions has drawn attention away from some much more interesting discussions happening in the legislature. Note: these are all quiet and unofficial and no legislators would go on record confirming these reports. Still, Wisconsin citizens should be concerned.

There are some now discussing a possible merger between the Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks.

We’re just asking questions at this point, really,” said one Assembly rep who asked not to be named but agreed to be called Bucky during the interview. “Are there efficiencies to be gained from beer sales, for example? Are there unnecessary duplications of athletic trainers? I mean–how many ways are there to tape an ankle?”

All that money we just provided for a new stadium—boy, if we could get the Bucks and Brewers to cooperate a little more, we might be able to redirect some of that money to some sorely needed areas.”

Like education? “No, I don’t mean education. They’ve admitted to how much bloat they have–they are cutting people right and left and assuring us that students’ experience won’t be affected, and I’m sure that’s true.  No, what I mean is loans to businesses and whatnot.”

A legislative aid was quoted as saying “a basketball court would totally fit on a baseball field. Just do the math.” He later added, “It almost seems like it was meant to be—I mean, Miller Park already has a roof.”

Even more controversial are discussions related to the merging of cheddar and swiss. “I don’t think that one’s going to happen,” said one long-time capitol observer. “Cheddar and American, maybe, but never Swiss.”

The uneasy alliance of cheddar and Swiss.

The uneasy alliance of cheddar and Swiss.

One state official lived up to her reputation for being “colorful” and “quirky” when she jumped into the conversation and said “I don’t know why your knickers are so twisted. Those cheeseheads are the color of cheddar but they got holes like swiss so we’re already doing it.”

Representative Bucky repeatedly emphasized that no one was considering monkeying with the Packers or State Fair cream puffs. “Some things are pretty much holy in Wisconsin,” he said.

He then added as an afterthought, almost a dreamy reverie really,”But I do wonder if people could get some kind of academic credit for taking part in a fantasy football league. I mean—I do a ton of research for mine. And grading would be easy-peasy. You end up with a winning record? You get an A. Not that I want to tell professors how to do their jobs or anything.”

No calls were returned from the offices of the UW Colleges or System President Ray Cross.

Probably because I made all of this up and no phone calls were made in the first place.

Actually the part about merging the UW Colleges and the Wisconsin Technical Colleges is not made up, I’m sorry to say.

Update:  a highly respected but very anonymous faculty member has commented that  “there could be promising efficiencies but I’d like to have a fully and completely partisan group analyze whether holes in swiss could be stuffed with cheddar.”

Every Time You Thank a Teacher

A small white flower blooms somewhere,
in some ugly, neglected spot .

A paparazzo sets his camera down,
and a famous baby gets a private smile.

Every time you thank a teacher,
she finds the energy to do just one more thing
before she goes to sleep.

Every time you thank a teacher,
the darkness slides a little back.

A fussy child eats five carrot sticks
and barely even notices.

Every time you thank a teacher,
he makes another phone call,
for the student who has no one,
literally no one, else who cares.

Every time you thank a teacher,
an astronaut tightens a bolt,
a fledgeling just totally sticks it
landing on a flimsy limb,
a desperate person’s car starts one more time.

But every time you could have
thanked a teacher and didn’t,
and every time you thank a teacher
without even trying to do your part,
your small part (voting?), to deal with
the colossal amounts of garbage
teachers have to deal with all the time,
well, you’re the one to blame because
that pretty little flower’s dead.
That famous baby grows up weird,
and the teachers just can’t even, not tonight.

The darkness grows darker and more.

That fussy child grows up to be
a generally unpleasant person,
the space station is less secure,
and the fuzzy wuzzy fledgeling falls to its death.

Look–there’s that sad sack, late for work,
with a car that will not turn over
not this time, not at all, it’s just dead.

The car’s dead.
It’s all dead and
it’s all your fault.