Thanks for tuning in to this issue of Loomings! If you’re headed to AWP in March, come see me on the panel “Hacking the Job Market: Getting (and Surviving) an Academic Job.” Or turn up for Barrelhouse’s Conversations & Connections conference in Washington, DC on April 15 and get hands-on with metaphors in my cross-genre workshop!
When I was in elementary school, we did little speed-based math tests every week. Called Mad Minutes, the tests theoretically demonstrated how many problems one could do in sixty seconds. I think there were thirty on each sheet. I’m sure we did addition- and subtraction-based tests, but it’s the multiplication ones I remember. If the goal is to do thirty math problems of any kind in sixty seconds, there’s barely time for actually doing the math on the spot; I experienced it as a test of memorization. 7x9 is 63 and 9x7 is 63 and the problem sheets checked whether the 9 and the 7 combine automatically in my brain to arrive at the correct answer much more than testing whether I could successfully execute the process of multiplication.
I have no idea whether that’s a good way to teach math. (I suspect not.) I remember these exercises being a kind of weekly bludgeoning for friends, a source of red-inked dread, but I was really good at Mad Minutes. Those multiplication tables have lived in the place my fingers hold a pencil since 1989, which is also pretty close to the tip of my tongue. Because I could do the task asked of me—and in spelling tests and label-all-the-states tests—I was able to build confidence in the premise of various kinds of tests. I was the lucky kind of student that “tested well.” Not without some hiccups—hello, Bio 110 lab practicum!—but tests in academe, standardized and otherwise, have been something I could navigate effectively. How much actual learning those tests have ever indicated is another matter altogether, but within that system of those tests and classes and grades, etc., I knew how to read my progress. I knew where I stood.
Fast-forward to this winter and a new kind of test: Functional Threshold Power testing on my bike. FTP, essentially, is an estimate of how much power you can generate for an hour. Building up your FTP means going farther faster, which is a matter of general strength and fitness on the bike. Since I’m aiming for 600km in 6 days this summer, I want to get better. So, across winter break and into January, I did a six-week training module on Zwift meant to help riders build the particular kind of fitness intended to increase FTP, a combination of endurance and hard, short efforts mixed with pedaling drills(pedal very fast! faster! or very slowly to hit power targets and make the muscles do different kinds of work). And once all that work is done, it’s time to take an FTP test to find out how much it helped.
The test: after a controlled warm-up, you go as hard as you can for twenty minutes, at a pace you can maintain for twenty minutes. To “do well” on an FTP test means knowing how to measure your own effort; you don’t want to burn yourself up in five minutes and you don’t want to discover, at the end, that you had more energy to give.
At the end of my post-training-module FTP test, I found that my FTP had gone down. Not by a whole lot, but at least by as many watts as I had hoped to gain.
It wasn’t that my training module didn’t work, it was that I “failed” the test. I didn’t measure my effort correctly; I watched the clock ticking down on my twenty minutes too closely or not closely enough; I pushed too hard at the start or not hard enough. I felt absolutely melted at the end of it, but that could have also been the day—some unkind alchemy of sleep and food and mood and the position of the stars. Whatever it was, I didn’t do something right.
I moped for a while on my tired legs, took a nap, graded some things. A few days later, I was doing my usual morning ride, feeling pretty good, and decided to push it, just for funsies. At the end of the ride, Zwift rewarded me with an FTP Increase Detected notification. There were my missing watts, found on a day I didn’t have the ticking clock or the expectation of The Difficult Painful FTP Test hanging over my handlebars.
It’s a good reminder that similar experiences aren’t necessarily analogous. Being good at tests on paper doesn’t mean anything to my body, which has always been rather less good at things than my brain. And it’s a better reminder of the ways in which progress isn’t necessarily linear. Sometimes failure is a failure to rest and success comes only after a fallow period. Sometimes the causes of failure are many and small, and the next try will work because one or two of those many, small things gets better, and maybe you’ll know which ones improved and maybe you won’t. Sometimes you’ll just have the good legs—or the good words or the good luck or the good weather or the good focus—and you go simply decide to go for it. Sometimes it even works.
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What I’m making:
After a long tablet weaving lay-off, I finally warped a new band. This is the start of a slightly modified Oseberg band (I removed one tablet so there are the same number of warp threads on either side of the pattern), done in black and red silk. This is one of two bands I am setting up for medieval arts & crafts days with my first-year writing course. The other one will be in wool, so students can feel the difference in the materials. These tablet weaving experiences will join drop-spinning, tapestry weaving, and writing with quills.
What I’m reading:
Brenna Womer’s Cost of Living is a multigenre hybrid collection full of sharp, intensely felt detail about anxiety, class, and (dis)connection, and I am so excited that Lebanon Valley College is hosting Brenna as one of our Writing: A Life visiting writers on February 20! You’re cordially invited to join us via Zoom, too. Find the free registration link, as well as more about Brenna and our March visiting writer Samantha Zighelboim, at the Writing: A Life webpage.
What I’m writing:
My latest for Ploughshares blog is “Discovery and Re-Discovery in Endpapers,” focused on Jennifer Savran Kelly’s lovely debut novel. Art is the lifeblood of this novel, and in addition to being a focused exploration of gender, identity, and belonging, Endpapers is a book for makers. (I have written about the ending of the book in my essay, so this is your spoiler alert if you haven’t yet read the novel!)
Not gonna lie: I kind of hate the pedaling drills, which means they’re probably working.
"I am secretly the antithesis of cycling and I am absolutely doomed forever to get weaker and worse because both God and this bicyle hate me” was also a possibility I entertained, but only until I ate some peanut butter toast afterwards.
Oh my goodness. Elizabeth was a member of the "weekly bludgeoning for friends, a source of red-inked dread" club. Her brain simply didn't work that way for memorization - especially for multiplication - she was a thinker and had to consider before writing anything, even in math.