Monthly Archives: August 2012

The schedule strikes back

Last year, I was a lecturer (full time, non t-t position) at Private University and a graduate teaching fellow at Public University.  I was pretty scheduled and as a result made very little progress on my oral exam lists (step leading to proposal).

My committee was very understanding and they believed that the job was important for me professionally, that I should take it and do what I could.  “If you have to slow down, ” they said, “this job is a good reason to.”  And it is; I am asked to participate more fully in an academic department, advise student groups, weigh in on decisions and attend faculty meetings. It is a learning experience adding professional polish to my skill set.

This year, I am no longer a teaching fellow and am instead to work with writing across the curriculum initiatives — which I surmise is not a bad skill to possess.  I will, however, remain as a lecturer at Private University. At the start of the summer, after coming off a year where my load was 6/5, I was gleeful about the time to research.  Here’s what that turned into: I was so exhausted by June that I took the whole month as a vacation.  During July, I taught two courses.  But! I also did a lot of research during July and August, having rested so fully in June.  Thankfully, I can say that I accomplished goals.

I kept hoping that this semester would feel ‘light’ to me.  Teaching 3 courses instead of 5 and having some phone-in work on another campus as a writing initiative fellow.  Wrong.  Having written out my schedule (I usually make a table in word each semester so I can see my availability and commitments), I realize that I’m pretty well scheduled.  Suddenly, I felt my daydreams of long, uninterrupted periods of research and writing time evaporate.  That’s what they were, daydreams.  In Large, Overbearing City, campus-hopping means public transit.  Public transit = the death of time.

From this, I am determined to learn the following: short of some future sabbatical during my career, I will not find such ‘uninterrupted’ time in my academic schedule.  So, I have realized the need to follow all of the self-help academic advice that is wonderfully prolific these days.

1) Overburdened by a full schedule? Then redraw the line. Paul Silvia says schedule the time you need to do your work and guard it fiercely.

2) Keep the log book.  How many pages/chapters read? How many pages written? I have to turn this into something with Swiss-watch precision and hopefully, a competition with myself.

3) When in doubt, write about it.  As Joan Bolker explains to us, process everything through writing. Be stuck while writing. Be confused while writing. Think while writing. Reflect while writing. And the list goes on. More writing, whether hugely academic or not, is better than no writing.

4)  Broadcast goals so that if I fail to meet them, many people are aware. To Do: Dissertation recommends writing regular reports for friends who are willing to play along as well as for your advisor/director.  Detail for them goals, progress, hurdles, failures.  Do this each month.

5)  Learn to say ‘no,’ and mean it.  Faye Hicks tells a story about the importance of turning down requests that are not hugely important to your career.

At the end of the day, I can bemoan my commitments to everyone who will listen, or, I can recognize that this is very likely the way the rest of my career will look and that a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. 


A-typical post

atypical post or maybe a typical post.

Jonathan Culler makes a point about how we view poetry, or even recognize it.  Sometimes I use this point with my students when we cover something from the avant-garde.   Usually, students are accustomed to dealing with poetry on classical terms.

Poem by Guillaume Apollinaire from Calligrammes.

How do they recognize a poem? Its (predictable) orientation on the page (at first glance).  Perhaps it’s a sonnet with two stanzas of four lines each and two stanzas of three lines each.  It doesn’t extend down the whole page, some say.  It doesn’t cross the whole page, others offer.

So, in taking a cue from Culler, I often write a line on the board. Something like.  Heat fully before serving.  And I ask them to tell me about what they read. Often, they tell me, “Well, that’s clearly from cooking directions.”  Good! I enthuse.  Then I ask them, “Is this a poem? It’s isolated. It doesn’t have any context, right?”   I see their faces screw up and their, lips pursed, brows furrowed.  Usually, there’s one leader in the pack who then offers, “No, that is not poetry.”

Ok, why isn’t it poetry? I ask them.   The response is usually something like, “It doesn’t sound like poetry.”   Aha! I say.  So, “Poetry has to sound like poetry?”  They nod their heads affirmatively (everyone hopping on board). I then ask them to tell me what poetry sounds like.  And they do.  Long (and studious) explanations about rhyme schemes, patterns of sound, and so forth. Very smart stuff.

Then I ask them to consider something. What if I take our excerpted line of directions and I do something like this with it:

Heat
F U L L Y        B
E
F            s
O             e
R                r
E                  v
i
n
g

“Ohhhhhhhh”  They say.  “That’s different.”   Different? How? I ask.   Well, that doesn’t look like directions any more.   What does it look like?  “Some kind of art,”  they say.


Imposteur! …and the professorial Godthing

That’s right. Impostor.  Or maybe hack is the word.  They’re going to figure out soon that I don’t know anything!

I think it is more than safe to say every graduate student routinely believes that she or he is substandard, dumb, not capable. Why? Well, personally, I think there are a multitude of reasons. Chief among them, if we’ve ended up on the academic roller coaster, we read a lot, we put our professors on pedestals, we recognize how many smart people we speak with often.

Further, and here is where the Wiki god shed some light on the issue:

Impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments.

Well, I think we’ve just described every graduate student, ever. Are there impostors out there? Sure. Though, usually, I think, academic departments have these needling ways of wheedling out those who don’t belong – like discussion, paper writing, comprehensive examinations, oral examinations, proposals, dissertations.

We spend hours upon hours pouring over books, writing, reflecting, teaching. It’s all going somewhere. Do our professors know more than we do? Duh.

Are there people who know more than we do? Usually!

Do these two premises mean that the conclusion is we know nothing? Hardly!  We may not be senior scholars, but we also haven’t been professional scholars for 20 years yet. We cannot possibly know everything that they know — yet.  At the end of the day, Grad School Ninja sums it up appropriately:

What to do about imposter syndrome? Know that everyone is going through it and that, as such, many of your fellow students (and even some faculty) may go around puffed up like a peacock using words like “hermeneutics” and other jargon, or pretending that they have photographic memories, or that they never procrastinate, or whatever. Recognize those signs when you see them and try to have a bit of empathy for those nervously puffed up people. And take a deep breath and just keep going.

This doesn’t mean we should have egos bigger than our accomplishments – but it also doesn’t mean we should self-deprecate or self-negate. Recognize what you know.  Understand that there will always be things you don’t know. Isn’t that the irony of the “life of the mind?”  The more we learn, the more we see what there is to be learned.

The side note is about Professor-as-Godthing syndrome that we seem to cling to. Paired with this is often a slew of unhealthy projection. Our professors are human beings with lives — the majority of said lives do not involve us in any way. We have this unfortunate habit of projecting all of our insecurities and fears onto our professors, advisors, and role models.

I know, with only a few notable exceptions on rare occasion, that I do not go home and obsess over my students’ work, writings, projects.  I go home and do my own work, watch TV, visit with friends, meow back and forth with my cat, take walks &c.   Why on earth would we assume that our professors are doing something different?

Take a cue from the pros whom we fear are suspicious of us.  Just do your work and remember to recognize the work that you’re doing.  This was tested just recently.  I spoke with someone connected to my own field of research but not fully versed in what I do specifically; an academic in my field but not my specific area. You know what the conversation revealed? I knew what I was talking about and it didn’t involve grand standing or faking.

So! Feel like an impostor? Well, if you obsess over what you don’t know to the point of not furthering what you do know, then you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erm..Dr. X, if you’re reading my blog and keeping a balance sheet of every aspect of my life as I fear, I promise that amorphous chunk of writing I mumbled about when I rushed past you in the hall is coming!


Grading the horizon, accountability

The semester looms like some evil monster approaching through the fog. We can hear its roar of battle and our heartbeats accelerate into fight-or-flight, adrenaline starts pumping — or, in my case, I think “hibernate now, sleep. Get sleep.”

By now it’s clear that the Chronicle of Higher Education often provokes me into thought which then pours out here on my sinful road to intellectual perdition. A recent editorial in the Chronicle on the topic of grading caught my eye.  So, some mental salad about how to approach the dreaded topic with our students.

I think it is safe to say that the majority of us approach our students full of hope that we will successfully teach them something and that this will contribute to their over-all success. I know that I am elated when I see my students achieve or get past a hurdle. I also know that when I grade and I see them struggle or even fail, I personally begin to feel bad. My first move is to assess the problem: is it isolated to this student or is it across all the students?  If one student, is it a trend? If across all students: what did I fail to communicate and how can I improve and find a way to reach them that they will understand?

I hope we all do this. Scholars we may be, but educators we most definitely are required to be. I’ve heard a myriad of commentary from my professors as a graduate student ranging from: “Your research is paramount. Research is what we do. Your teaching is secondary. You must not let your teaching interfere with your research.”

To: “You will be hired to teach. They will assume your research is important to you. You must have good and demonstrable teaching skills because they’re going to hire you to fill a need. ”   I’m pretty sure (though you senior scholars out there will know best)  that the road is a combination of both. Since, usually we’re hired to deal with both areas of our career simultaneously and with aplomb if we’re hoping for that prized tenure line depending on the type of institution we end up working at.

Inside this process is grading. Students would prefer not to have to produce work. We’d often prefer not to have to grade that work. It can be a nasty situation on both ends.  Grading becomes even more tricky when we factor in what students expect and what ‘reality’ exists in the classroom.

We all explain the grading scale (some of us better than others) and how it breaks down into their work (or lack thereof).  This never cuts off the inevitable questions down the road, the confusion, the angst, resentment and arguing. Not one semester has gone by when I have not received a post-semester inquiry about a grade or a last-minute freak out.  I’d say this is true for all of us (if not, please share your secret).

For what it is worth, I try to explain during week 1 that an A does not mean you did your work and came to class. For those tasks, a C will be awarded. I explain that an A means you have exceeded expectations with some amount of distinction, gone the extra-mile, really devoted yourself to not just passing, but mastering, the content of the course.

This is often met with incredulous gasps of horror.

I’m not going to touch the reasons for this misconception of what an A is — not my area of education.  Their previous teachers from different levels of education work incredibly hard with scant respect from students, parents, and administration as it is.

What upsets me (actually physically and emotionally upsets me) are the situations that I’m going to go ahead and call emotional abuse. The article sums them up nicely. Things akin to: “I will lose my scholarship,”  “I will lose my financial aid,” “I will be barred from playing my sport, and then I won’t be able to afford school,”  “I will not get into my major.”  And the ultimate: “I will not graduate.” And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Ouch. Seriously. Logically, we all realize that we are not in control of the choices our students have made and that they must learn to manage their obligations academic, extra-curricular, and social.  But, we get the abuse nonetheless.  Thankfully, however, we do not have the level of parental interference (yet, it is increasingly more common that we do) that our colleagues in secondary education have.  I blatantly tell my students: I do not want to hear from your parents. Yes, you heard me. I do not want to hear from your parents short of an actual emergency situation where you are not able to speak for yourselves.  I then explain to them rationally that they are now in charge of their education. That I cannot actually, legally, speak to parents about student performance.  I use the big A word, accountability.  Conversely, I let them know that for all intents and purposes, I am a safe space for them. I’m not their friend, but if they need someone to talk to because something in their lives has become too much to manage on their own, they can come to me and I will help them find the resources through the school that they need.

So far, this tactic has worked nicely. No parent emails.

What also gets awkward, and I have encountered this at 2 institutions, is quiet department mandates that there should not be more than X students below X grade.  (Yikes, I thought this was college?)

Increasingly, however, I have students who are arguing B range grades. Not D.  Not C.  B range.  It was not so very long ago that I was an undergraduate. I considered a B a perfectly fine grade especially if I struggled with the topic.  I always shot for the A, but I also always knew what range my grade would be in before it was posted. I knew the caliber of my work as well as the course grading policy.

Students will always complain about grades. No surprise. Usually at the 18-21 age range they will also reduce anything difficult down to it being ‘stupid.’ I get that. I was incredibly grateful to see Ahmed Afzaal’s post (see above link) on our approach vs. their approach to grading.

This semester I will be starting off differently. I will cover the same points he covers in his article, reinforcing that we want to see them succeed, we do not look for reasons to punish them, and that grading is a tool to convey information about the level of their performance.

I think I might also ask them to not come to me with the doomsday proclamations I listed above, that in the end, it is unfair,uncomfortable, and ultimately, as the Vicomte de Valmont said, “ce n’est pas de ma faute.”

If you’ve had success in warding off the messiness of student grade confusion, stories of harrowing grade negotiating, or fool-proof methods, share with the group!


How the American University was killed, by Homelessadjunct

An incisive view on what for many of us is an urgent and very real concern.

The Homeless Adjunct

A few years back, Paul E. Lingenfelter began his report on the defunding of public education by saying, “In 1920 H.G. Wells wrote, ‘History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ I think he got it right. Nothing is more important to the future of the United States and the world than the breadth and effectiveness of education, especially of higher education. I say especially higher education, but not because pre- school, elementary, and secondary education are less important. Success at every level of education obviously depends on what has gone before. But for better or worse, the quality of postsecondary education and research affects the quality and effectiveness of education at every level.”

In the last few years, conversations have been growing like gathering storm clouds about the ways in which our universities are failing. There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in…

View original post 4,142 more words


Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.


Bilan, the balance sheet (or the profane)

Having perused one of the more recent Chronicle articles on stress and productivity, I’ve been reflecting on August being fully underway.  It’s the time of the balance sheet for those of us who kept saying, “Bah! This summer will be a wonderland of academic production!” 

I have by no means achieved herculean levels of labor. Though, I am pleased to report (to myself) that I have made progress that falls under the category of “not too shabby,” rested and brought my work to a new level.

Essentially, this topic is à l’esprit for most of us during this time of the year since we’ve spent most of the teaching part of the year looking forward to our “great summer of working.”  Sighing longingly through the stretching semesters, we dream of the uninterrupted (read: no students) months where we decide our wake-up time as we like, can read leisurely all day if we like, and fold ourselves in front of our favorite computer to tap diligently at the keys, pouring our most profound academic reflections onto the Great White Page.

Similarly, we tend to view the long-weekend and the short holiday breaks as sacred working time. Yet, I will confess, at least, that during these shorter ‘breaks,’ I’m so exhausted from an over-loaded teaching schedule that not a whole lot more than netflix, sleeping, and grading gets accomplished. I also make a pretty convincing argument to myself during these times to justify my avoidance of all things academic.

If we take a look at the ledger, how many of us get all this work done that we day-dreamed about in a grass-is-greener type way during the academic year?  As I said, I know during the short breaks I rarely accomplish anything unstructured without a deadline looming.

This is where (and yes, it’s a cliché, but a damned good one ) Paul Silvia’s book about being a productive little academic worker very much revolutionized my perception of what it is I do (or am supposed to do).  Essentially, it’s a self-help book for academics. But, if you haven’t read this book and are considering reading it, don’t expect a session of care and concern for your well-being.

Instead, Silvia lords his own work record over our heads (because, in the end, no matter what other lies we tell ourselves, we all know that academia is not very different from any other corporate structure these days. Money talks. Competition (healthy and unhealthy) thrives. Colleagues are annoying. But, we do get to set our hours, for the most part – it only took 3 degrees and mountains of money to get there).  He lists all the common (voiced and unvoiced) objections that we cry in dismay, all the ‘plans’ we come up with for ourselves and deftly finds the flaws in the logic as we’d do with our own students. It’s almost like he’s reading our thoughts (tricksy psychologist that he is).

In the end, you can reduce his lesson to the following: stop whining, stop procrastinating and schedule your ‘real’ work like you schedule your classes. Adhere to one as you would the other.   He says,

“As an academic…you’re a professional writer, just as you’re a professional teacher. Treat your scheduled writing time like your scheduled teaching time. Say no to well-intentioned intruders, and explain why you can’t (not won’t, but can’t) break your committed writing time. If you feel bad about saying no, then lie. If you feel bad about lying, then use the obscurantism you learned in grad school: Claim a “recurring intractable obligation.”

His sermon on the Sacred Writing Time is not without its humor and levity but the weight of his point resounds: schedule your work, get it done and stop making excuses: we all know the excuses.  I heartily recommend this for all graduate students — and anyone else who has large projects waiting to be completed. 

Of interest, I found that this program, Omm writer,  allowed me to increase my  amount of words that end up on the page (even just for reflecting on ideas and readings Note: it’s very much an aesthetic program and all sound effects can be muted) as one of his secrets is to not engage the rest of the world when you’re working.  Equally, Scrivener has revolutionized my approach to writing and is advised for large project management (such as the dreaded D-word or books).

The tools are there. I can attest to the efficaciousness; my productivity is up with the trifecta of the book and these two cheap (at least on a Mac) programs.

A renewed outlook (and wrist-slapping by Silvia) didn’t hurt either.

* *

Edit: I forgot to include a great resource from a fellow academic writing savvy blogger: Dailychicana’s resource page is great.