Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Night, Quality Time with Syllabi

Well. It's Friday night, and I'm having a glass of wine (or two), and I'm working on my syllabi for the spring. Ok, so I don't need to be doing this right this very minute, but there is something about designing a syllabus (or multiple syllabuses, syllabi, whatever) that is a calming pursuit for me. I like making a syllabus, perhaps more than I like a lot of the other parts of the job. There's something so great about the clean slate that a new syllabus signifies, and it's great to remember why one loves teaching certain courses as one updates (and changes) a syllabus from the year before. Also, this activity tonight is definitely inspired by some of the anxiety I've been feeling about the job market. I've gotten a marginally "good sign" from one of the places to which I applied (emphasis on marginally) and this has sent me into a tailspin of worry. I mean, I was fine when I thought I'd just be rejected out of hand by all places - then there'd be nothing to negotiate, you know? - putting carts way before all possible horses, wondering what in the hell I'll do if I have to schedule campus visits (I mean, with the marginally good sign, I've now been worrying over a number of uncontrollable things, like I teach 5 days a week, and I really can't afford to cancel classes with the kind of tight schedule I design in my courses) or how one actually moves a cat to a far-away location, which I realize people have done before, but somehow this causes me great stress. I can't do anything about the cat, but somehow looking at the syllabi allows me to feel like I'm doing something about the campus visit "problem" (which, of course, may not even be a problem, as it's not like I've even gotten a request for a single MLA interview yet, and as I'm superstitious, I entirely believe that I still may not get a one, even though if I don't I'll be really upset, if that makes any sense.) Add to this that my university is starting the process of going up for review for an accrediting body, and so things with the syllabi need to change accordingly. (Aside: fuck learning objectives and learning outcomes and assessment tools, not that I don't have these, but that I hate having to fit what I do explicitly into this stupid model.) And so here I am, working on my spring syllabi, and I'm actually feeling quite calmed by the process.

More than that, though - and this is the real reason for the post - working on my syllabi makes me want to talk about the really great things that I'm thinking about in relation to my literature courses for spring.

First, I am so excited for the upper-division course I'll be teaching. For the first time ever (though superstitious me feels I should probably not say this) I'm not worried about the course making its enrollment. Even though we're early in pre-registration, I've got a good number of students registered, and I credit the advising meeting we held for all majors last month for this. We told them that the meeting was mandatory and a huge number of them actually believed it! And they showed up! At the meeting, we dealt with a number of advising issues, but we also had faculty talk for a minute (or longer, for some of my colleagues) about the upper-division courses they'd be teaching. Now, my spiel about my course wasn't exactly illuminating. I basically said the name of the course, told them they'd read a bunch of things they'd probably never heard of before, and then said, "There are a lot of people here who've had me before, and they can tell you: I'll make you do a bunch of things you don't want to do, but you'll learn a lot! Wow, how many of you will sign up for the course with that pitch?" and then I was done. But they did get a sense of my personality from that, I suppose, and I also suppose that students are getting to know who I am more now that I'm in my fourth year ("knowing" the instructor is a big deal at my university - students take courses often based just on the instructor and not at all on the material - we talk a great deal about our "frequent fliers" - which puts junior faculty at a huge disadvantage in terms of making enrollment). Now, this is such a good sign for me, that the course doesn't seem to be in danger. The texts in my area of specialization tend to be somewhat alienating to this particular student population. I had never anticipated such resistance when I chose my area of specialization because, well, I'm into these things, and my specialization is - one would think - one that would draw students just by virtue of the fact that the stuff I teach is relatively current. I understand the difficulty that, say, medievalists might have in attracting students, but at my university this isn't the case. At my university, students are incredibly compelled by the Canonical and What They've Heard of Before. As I have a fairly sheltered student population, the stuff that I teach seems Foreign and Scary and Hard and - on top of all of that - not Literature-Capital-L. So I've had some difficulty with making enrollments in my upper-division courses. But not so this time! I taught a version of this course a in 2005, but I've changed the course kind of substantially for the spring (to incorporate some things I'd taught in another course that I'll no longer be teaching, mainly), but it's going to be AWESOME. One reason that it will be awesome is that I'm teaching the Novel I've Been Working On Most in my own research in the course, the Novel Related to My Recent Publications. I am so excited to teach this book now that I'm kind of an expert on it. (I taught it last when I was just embarking on scholarship on it, and I have so much more to bring to teaching it now.) I'm also excited by the way I've reorganized the order in which I'm teaching some things, which I think will be more effective than when I taught the course the first time. Finally, I'm excited because Student To Whom I Suggested Graduate School and another Favorite Student From a Previous Course have already enrolled, and so I know that the level of discourse will be really high and interesting.

But weirdly, I am not most excited about my upper-level course. I'm most excited, as I've been since I begun teaching it, by my intro to lit course. (This is one of the reasons I'm somewhat ambivalent about the job search: I really love my intro to lit course, and if I get the kind of job that I've applied for, the likelihood is that I'd never get to teach this course again. That said, would it be a fair trade-off to give up this course to get rid of teaching comp? Probably.) But I digress. I want to talk why I'm excited about my intro to lit course.

Now, I've written about my intro to lit course before. I still believe all of the things that I wrote about it in my previous posts. But I've changed the course substantially for the upcoming semester. 1) I've changed one of the novels that I teach. 2) I've changed one of the plays that I teach. 3) I've moved to using a custom anthology for much of the material of the course, which means that students will need to spend less money and which also means that I've switched a couple of the poems that I'll teach in the course. The short story that I teach is the same; one of the novels is the same; one of the plays is the same; the long poem and the movie is the same. I am so excited to see what will happen with the small changes in texts! Changing them has meant that I've changed the unit titles, and while none of the changes I've made are substantial in terms of teaching things that I'm unfamiliar with (which I do sometimes) I will be teaching things I've never taught before. I hope that these changes will be positive, not only for me but for my students. I really think they will be. As I do this next semester, I'll totally post about it.

But so some final thoughts: Why does moving up in this profession mean moving away from introducing people to literature? Wouldn't it make more sense to have people who are really committed to literature introducing people to it? And why is it that introduction to literature is something that is often not required of people who MAJOR in literature? Don't they need an introduction as well?


Terminaldegree said...

I *did* move my boykitty to a far, far away location. If the time comes, feel free to e-mail me for ideas. It wasn't fun, but since he's sitting here on the couch with me and purring, he seems to have gotten over it. :)

Of course it takes a little more money to move with a cat. But my furry fella was worth it.

Alice said...

I am a syllabus junkie, too -- I like to be prepared, especially with my crazy schedule.

Hilaire said...

I think writing syllabi is a fine, fine way to spend a Friday night - and with wine, even better. I love love love designing courses - full of hope and possibility.

itinerarium said...

I see your Friday night syllabi, and raise you Saturday night grading. A brief moment of procrastination, and this was all too reminiscent of man-kitty. And funny, if geeky.

Dr. Crazy said...

I love the reminiscent of Man-Kitty picture :) And I don't think that grading on a Saturday night beats writing syllabi that I won't need for months on a Friday night - while, yes, it is a lame way to spend a Saturday night, the grading is more time-sensitive (though, of course, I'm not doing my grading that I could be doing, so perhaps that's not true either?)

prefer not to say said...

Hey -- while you were syllabi-concocting on Friday night, Michael Berube was getting laughs during his keynote speech at the Midwest MLA convention, mentioning your "don't you wish your blog was raw like me?" post.

Do you get royalties for that? ;-)

Dr. Crazy said...


This is what I get for avoiding the regional MLAs.... I could have had my moment in the pseudonymous spotlight. Damn. And imagine how saddened people would be if they knew that "Dr. Crazy"
spent her friday nights on syllabi. Too sad.

The fact of the matter is, though, I'd probably have made a fool of myself and the jig would have been up about my identity because I'd have blushed so deeply I would have looked like a neon sign, so it's all for the best. And sadly, there are no royalties. Sigh.

prefer not to say said...

Regional MLAs suck. You missed nothing. By virtue of being mentioned in a keynote speech, you were too important to be there.