the state of the semester

I thought maybe I’d wrap up this semester with some notes and statistics while I listen to Los Straitjackets’ Christmas album. It’s the cheeriest slab of holiday instrumentals you’re ever likely to hear.  Highly recommended!!

FALL 2014

  • Classes taught – 6; 4x 16-week & 2x 8-week: 18 credit hours total
  • Campus breakdown – 2x GMU/Fairfax, 2x NVCC/Woodbridge, 2x NVCC/Annandale
  • Course breakdown – 2x History of Western Civ I, 2x History of Western Civ, 1x US History I, 1x US History II
  • Students – 210; 20x US History, 190x Western Civ
  • Class sizes – 10, 10, 61, 47, 59, 23
  • Grade breakdown – A, 81; B, 56; C, 43; D, 10; Earned F*, 18; Unearned F, 2
  • Average grade, ignoring Unearned F – 79.68 (C+ or B- depending on attendance/homework completion)
  • Median grade, ignoring Unearned F – 86.61 (B)
  • Highest overall grade – 102 (A+)
  • Lowest overall earned grade – 9.167 (F)
  • Class with the most A grades – 23
  • Class with the most Earned F grades – 10
  • Students caught cheating on papers/exams – 4 (Earned F)

While my largest class this semester was 61, that’s not the largest class I’ve ever had. I’ve had multiple classes of 70-75; the highest I ever had was one year when NVCC was renovating one of its main classroom buildings and I had 102 one semester and 110 the following semester. Once they finished the building renovations, everything went back to normal.  I don’t mind big classes.  I know a lot of teachers say they love small classes because it lets them get to know the students better – and that’s certainly true – but small classes are a lot more pressure simply because you HAVE to get to know the students better.  I find it affects my objectivity at the end of the semester – “Oh, Nancy got a 65, which is a D, but remember that time when her kid was sick for three weeks? Yeah, she should totally get a C.”


My Friday class this semester was weird for three reasons:  1) it consisted entirely of adults – the youngest student was, I think, 25 or 26; 2) it was a 16-week hybrid – I’ve only ever taught 8-week hybrids before; and 3) it met during the daytime!! That’s right, it started at 0800 – the first time I’ve ever taught a weekday daytime course.  It was actually challenging – having to come up with 16 weeks worth of in-depth assignments (and grading ALL OF THEM!). (It actually came to 13 assignments – 2 weeks off for exams & 1 week off for Thanksgiving.)  It was a good class, though, and I got a lot out of it.

Thus ends my 26th semester of teaching (plus 13 summer terms). Since my first class in Fall 2001, I’ve only been idle one semester – Fall 2003. I’ve taught at least one summer class every year since 2003! By my calculations, I’ve taught a total of 84 classes – mostly Western Civilizations, but probably 30% US History, maybe a little more. Eleven of those classes have been for GMU (1st in Fall 2010), the rest at NVCC.

All in all, 2014 was a good year – 11 classes overall, probably close to 500 students. It’s still my favorite work-type thing to do, so I’m going to keep doing it!!

* The difference between an Earned F and an Unearned F is simple – if you turn in at least one assignment and still get an F, that’s Earned.  The Unearned F (a zero) comes from somebody who shows up one or two times, then stops coming but never drops the class. My policy is if you show up once, it’s now your responsibility to drop the class and I won’t do it.  NVCC requires that I drop students who don’t show up in the first 2 or 3 weeks; GMU doesn’t have this requirement, but I take roll and email students who don’t show up and encourage them to drop. If they don’t, that qualifies as THEIR PROBLEM!


best (or most listened to) music of 2014

I’m in a pretty downward phase with music. Ever since I retired from playing in bands (the current upcoming show notwithstanding), I just don’t have the interest in music I used to.

To wit: in all of 2014, I only bought 8 new cds, and one of those sucked so bad (The Art of McCartney) that I returned it unopened.  (I heard all the tracks on a streaming preview after I ordered it, but before I received it.)

Here’s what I bought (and kept) in 2014:

  • Various, Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life
  • Prince & 3rd Eye Girl, Plectrum Electrum
  • DIO, Best of Dio (import from Germany)
  • Steve Hackett, Spectral Mornings
  • KXM, KXM
  • Mastodon, Once More ‘Round the Sun
  • Queen, Queen Forever

That’s it, folks, and to be perfectly honest, I haven’t even listened to the Queen cds yet – I only got it to be sure I had the previously unreleased songs.  The rest of the 2 discs is material I’ve been listening to since I was 13 years old.

Out of that bunch, it’s hands-down easy to pick the best: Mastodon’s Once More ‘Round the Sun.  This album also tops my most-listened to, with an average of two listens per week since it came out in June.

The rest of my most listened top 10 is as follows, in order from 2 to 10:

  • Black Label Society, Stronger Than Death
  • Cutting Crew, Broadcast
  • Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Mind Control
  • John Williams, The Soloist
  • Cake, Fashion Nugget
  • AC/DC, For Those About To Rock, We Salute You
  • Kingdom Come, In Your Face
  • KXM, KXM
  • Pink Floyd, Animals

The new Prince/3rd Eye Girl album is excellent, but I’ve only had it for a few days – it came out months ago, but I watched the price & bought it at $5.99 last week. Best of Dio is getting regular rotation in the car, but I don’t spend much time in the car.

I picked up the Steve Hackett album because I remembered liking that album a lot in my younger days. After listening to it a few times over the weekend, I’m 99% sure I liked a different album and have forgotten which one it was.  Oof.

I think it’s a little telling that in my top 10 listened-to albums, 5 of them are decades old.  DECADES.  I’m just not connecting with new music much in the last few years.  The upside is that I haven’t bought (and kept) any albums that I really hate.  The McCartney tribute was just terrible, I’m really glad I got my $21 back on that deal.  Thanks, record label, for streaming it in its entirety!


best movies of 2014

It’s the end of another year … after going to see Big Hero 6 yesterday, I doubt I’ll get out to the movies again, so I’m here with my year-end “best movies of 2014” pronouncements.  Plus also the worst, because I’m that kind of guy.


Anchorman 2 – I even saw the “raunchier” unrated version – is probably the worst movie I’ve paid to see since Ishtar.  This movie sucked in so many ways I can’t even count them. It’s a shame, too, because I enjoyed the first one. This movie goes to prove my theory about Will Ferrell’s hit-and-miss career.  I’m looking forward to the day he stops doing comedies regularly and becomes a dramatic actor, like Tom Hanks did. Tom Hanks’ comedies are hit-and-miss, but generally OK. His dramatic movies, though, are nearly all excellent.

Under the Skin – this is the kind of artsy film I’m glad I skipped at the theater and rented from iTunes.  While it certainly has some positives to it, it should have been about 30 minutes long.  At 30 minutes, the self-discovery/coming-of-age film warped into the alien-lands-on-Earth ouvre would have really worked.

The Machine – another one I’m glad I saw on Netflix instead of paying $12 to watch. Great concept, just poorly executed.


5. The Grand Budapest Hotel – funny, manic and touching.  Worth every penny.

4.  TIE: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes/Godzilla – I’m a total sucker for reboots, and I think the Planet of the Apes reboot series is doing well.  I missed the presence of James Franco, who was absolutely stellar in the first movie in this rebooted series (he’s another comedic actor that is ofter better in dramatic roles), but the story was good, the effects were excellent, and the apes were STELLAR.  Caesar is a subtle, nuanced character that rivals any live human in any movie this year.  Godzilla suffered from a bit of bloat – I’m going to say about 15 minutes too much – but man, what a good movie!

3.  Interstellar – if they’d trimmed 30 minutes off this movie, it’d probably have been my #2, if not #1.

2.  Big Hero 6 – maybe it’s just because I saw this yesterday & it’s still fresh in my mind, but this was a fun movie.  The animation was top notch and the story was compelling (it was, however, a little predictable).  Only the identity of the villain surprised me, but I enjoyed the story of the plucky underachiever and his puffy robot sidekick teaming up to save the world.

1.  Earth to Echo – I know, I know, you know I dislike “found footage” films, but you also know I’m a total sucker for sci-fi (see 2 of the 3 worst films, above).  This is a fantastic story about innocence and the loss thereof.  Imagine Super 8 without the scary space monster and you’ve got this movie I think was the best of the year.

Here’s all the 2014-release movies I saw:

  • The Lego Movie
  • The Monuments Men
  • RoboCop (remake)
  • Anchorman 2
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Muppets: Most Wanted
  • Under the Skin (rental)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Godzilla
  • The Machine (Netflix)
  • Earth to Echo
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (video)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Ghostbusters (30th anniv. release)
  • Big Hero 6
  • Interstellar

Here’s the movies I seriously thought about going to see, but didn’t:

  • Shoot Me (Elaine Stritch documentary)
  • Particle Fever
  • Chef
  • A Night in Old Mexico
  • A Million Ways To Die in the West
  • Age of Uprising
  • Night Moves
  • The Signal
  • A Fantastic Fear of Everything
  • A Letter to Momo
  • Hercules (starring Dwayne Johnson)
  • Lucy
  • A Most Wanted Man
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Get On Up
  • The Congress
  • Frontera
  • The Zero Theorem
  • This Is Where I Leave You
  • The Box Trolls
  • The Equalizer
  • The Judge
  • Automata
  • Fury
  • The Book of Life
  • Birdman
  • John Wick