Internationally righting: gay rights, emerging equalities, Foreign Affairs

This needs some international attention and hopefully a vote.  Standing in my friend’s kitchen in her 4th story walk-up, I had the pleasure of meeting an engaging thinker.  Earlier in the day, I had been frolicking about with a friend when we came upon a campaign table for the President.  Naturally we shelled out some money for campaign swag and got some stickers too.  Merrily, and some what obliviously, I walked around with a campaign sticker on my shirt for the rest of the day–which as it happens was a conversation starter.

As it turns out, this engaging thinker, Mr. Pérez,  wrote an article on advancing gay rights internationally that may be featured in Foreign Affairs magazine with the help of supporters. In the era of social media, apparently even FA wants le peuple to choose its feature (which I suppose is also a creative way of foisting the decision on everyone else, thus escaping any residual messiness).  In a piece promoting his article and the vote that FA has called for, Pérez writes:

that some will question the validity of this topic being considered “the stuff of serious foreign affairs.” And judging by some of the comments made about my essay so far, I was right. It is shortsighted to assume that real foreign affairs is limited to discussions of war, territorial disputes, nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like.

We cannot forget that combating anti-gay discrimination touches upon many matters that are also of import to foreign policy: From war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to public health concerns in Botswana, there are many foreign policy implications to antigay discrimination throughout the world that may not be evident to those who conceive of U.S. foreign policy and gay rights as distinct and unrelated concepts. For as the world becomes more diverse and complex, so [too] will foreign affairs matters become more diverse and complex.

In a time when we still haven’t grown beyond this startling word count of antigay speech, perhaps we should all give Mr. Pérez’s article a read and head over to place a vote. After all, if we don’t decide to raise our hands and say, “this is important,” who else will?  Certainly not the other tweeters scrolling on that page.

See this article from Hunter College for Mr. Pérez’s “Emerging Equality: Gay Rights as a Priority of U.S. Foreign Policy,”  and for voting instructions.

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Darth Chancellor and the academic HMO?

The Board Strikes Back — Darth Chancellor weighs in on CUNY brouhaha.

Far be it for me to be so naive that I think money grows on trees and oversight is avoidable.  The Board of Trustees is a function of universities (or maybe a symptom?) that is not going anywhere.  What troubles me, however, is that the majority of boards I am familiar with are not actually staffed with academics (though, surely there is representation).  Now, before you blow the ‘play fair’ horn, I do acknowledge that there is a reason for governance that is not completely by the faculty — there is more going on at a university than education.  Yet, when the board of trustees gets to decide curricular directions I hear alarms sounding (let’s agree this is not the first time a board has asserted itself against the wishes of the faculty— everyone remembers Mitch Daniels and Purdue University, right?)

As one Purdue protester put it:

“What we see again with this appointment is a top-down, corporate driven shaping of education.”

And every American university I have stepped foot in has demonstrated this exact trend. Lamentable and destructive to the integrity of the college degree, standards are loosened, bars are lowered, whining is appeased.  I have witnessed curricula that have been adjusted for certain schools within universities who also happen to secure a plethora of funding externally. The student-as-consumer and education-as-commodity model is, quite frankly, a destructive load of hooey. The best argument I’ve heard against this is actually marvelously simple: college students do not have the knowledge to act as a consumer; rather, they are in college to gain that knowledge.  It is generally up to the educators to determine what they need to know by virtue of their extensive education. Here’s another argument against it, however.

The Rebel Professors are on Dantooine!

All of this to report that Chancellor Matthew Goldstein of the City University of New York, a consortium of many colleges throughout the five boroughs of the city, has responded to the concerns expressed by the CUNY community in regards to the flippant remarks of a Queensborough Community College administrator. (You can find her remarks here.)  The Professional Staff Congress (a cross-campus advocacy body) has voiced its condemnation of the situation. (You can find PSC president Barbara Bowen’s comments here.)  After the PSC body broadcast its condemnation loudly to the CUNY community which was simultaneously joined with an outcry at the QCC administration and the University administration with further condemnation of the Pathways Initiative,  Chancellor Goldstein has sent out an e-mail to the entire CUNY community today:

I am writing to address several issues that have arisen recently in connection with the implementation of the Pathways resolution of the Board of Trustees.

First, earlier this month, the interim vice-president for academic affairs at Queensborough Community College wrote an unfortunate letter to the College’s English Department. The author subsequently apologized for the character and tone of her communication. We should remember that while Pathways established the structure for curricular reform and its implementation, faculty are fully engaged in developing course content. Such collaboration is very much in the tradition and spirit of a great University.

Second, Dr. Terrence Martell, chair of the University Faculty Senate, and Dr. Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress, have sent an email to the faculty in which they erroneously state that the faculty have the power to block the implementation of Pathways. This claim misstates the core principle, embodied in state law and the bylaws and policies of the University, that the authority for the governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has delegated a significant role to the faculty on academic matters, and the faculty have the right to exercise their professional judgment in fulfilling that role. However, the faculty are not empowered to ignore or violate a policy established by the Board of Trustees or the implementation of that policy by the Chancellor.

I hope this clarifies matters and allows us to continue to work collaboratively to implement Pathways in a manner that is in the best educational interests of our students.

The issue of curricular change joined with phrasing like “the faculty are not empowered,” are particularly piquant.  I cannot help but metaphorically reach towards the adage of the corporate bean-counter deciding what treatment physicians can give their patients, the requirement to have procedures and tests approved (you know those physicians, they just love to fire up the MRI and do spinal taps for giggles).

Now, we are told that faculty have “the right to exercise their judgement,” only not when it involves what composes the degree they’re participating in…actively.  Curricular changes forced on a community like a steam-roller (as, with an inside perspective, I can vouch that this Pathways Initiative is like some form of academic Eminent Domain), non-academics making those decisions – wow, it sounds a lot like local public education in America. Let’s have the non-educators decide who learns what and when.  After all, who needs history, literature, foreign language? (See this great post by Carceral Nation).  You can’t quantify them, therefore they must be useless.

Enjoy your degrees. Soon they’ll mean little more than “I was present for 4 years.”


Pot hole in CUNY’s Pathway to Nowhere

As the GC Advocate states:

On Friday, QCC  Vice President Karen Steele announced reprisals against the English faculty.

What has been a nightmare for CUNY faculty and staff over the past year or so is finally leaving the dream world and manifesting itself as reality.   Because faculty at one of the CUNY campuses have refused to change their curriculum to match the Pathways Program they are now threatened with the forced dismantling of their department, the non re-appointment of contingent, contractual workers and the possible firing of tenured or tenure track faculty members.

The email in question reads:

We will no longer be able to offer EN-101, 102, or 103 in their current configuration (i.e., four contact hours) as of Fall 2013. Since we don’t have in place courses that will meet the Pathways requirements for the Common Core, we can’t put forward a Fall 2013 schedule of classes that includes English Composition courses. Given that fact, and the resultant dramatic drop in enrollment, we will have to take the following actions:

  • All searches for full time faculty in the English Department will be cancelled immediately;
  • The existing EN 101, 102, and 103 will not be included in the common core, and therefore will not be offered in Fall 13;
  • Beginning March 2013 (our Fall 13 advisement cycle), continuing and new students will be advised to take the common core requirement for I A at another CUNY institution, since the courses will not be available at Queensborough;
  • Neither EN 101 or 103, nor EN 102 will be submitted to the University in the QCC list of ‘gateway’ courses for the English Major (we must submit the list of gateway major courses by October 1, 2012);
  • Of necessity, all adjunct faculty in the English department will be sent letters of non-reappointment for Fall 2013;
  • The reappointment of full time faculty in the English Department will be subject to ability to pay and Fall ’13 enrollment in department courses.

Check out, as well, Student Activism’s article (and this update) on the same embarrassment to higher education.   In brief, the Pathways program seeks to create a common set of credit hours across the curricula of multiple colleges that are part of the CUNY consortium.  In theory, this is to facilitate transfer of credit between campuses and equalize the degrees at all schools. However as many faculty have discovered, in practice this severely weakens the level of education available to students.  This is a prime example of the faculty, who know their student demographic better than the administrators, maintaining that the students are best served by a 4 (credit) hour course and not the new standard 3 hour course.

Apparently, the mission is no longer to educate students to the best of our ability.


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!