Thursday, May 29, 2008

Oof. I Should Not Be This Tired in Summer

So the teaching week is done, and after forcing myself to work for 8 hours today, I've finally finished the stuff I had to finish with the Book That Will Never Be Finished to mail off to my editor. (Yes, I thought I'd done that in November or December. Tragically, because of some permissions-related intrigues, I had to go back to the manuscript again. It's better for it, I think, but motherfucker.) So that means that I've got two smallish research tasks to finish up (notes for one article, some niggling citations for another) and then my research plate will be CLEAN. For the moment at least.

In other news, the summer classes go well, although I definitely won't teach one of them as a summer class ever again. It is lame in the summertime, I have decided. The other is *awesome* though I'm wondering how many will stick around now that they're getting their first real grades. Thought you'd take that gen. ed. class in the summer so it would be easy? Ah, that was a mistake. Dr. Crazy rests for no students, not even in summertime. Even though she's tired, so tired. Really, I'm a martyr. It's almost unbelievable the selflessness that I exhibit. Whatever, I think it's really just that I'm compulsive when it comes to how I structure a syllabus.

In other news, what? I don't know. I'm tired. That's the biggest thing. And I'm sick of having to do things. That's the second-biggest. But so now the week is over, and I (hopefully) can become re-energized. This is, at any rate, the plan.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Academic Life vs. Personal Life

I know that I should not write this post. I know that I shouldn't. So let it be stated for the record that in spite of the fact that this post will surely be misread and will surely be a mistake, I'm writing it anyway.

Dean Dad wrote a post today on academe and parenting, inspired by this article in Inside Higher Ed. Now, let me just state first, and I'll put this in bold just so it's clear, I agree that balancing the demands of children (esp. small ones) with a professorial life is not easy, that it this profession is not terribly family-friendly and that this is not positive. But the thing that I was thinking about, as all posts of this variety get me thinking, is how irritating I find the discourse that privileges the hardships of people raising children above all other hardships, and the discourse that assumes that no personal responsibility (with the possible exception of caring for an ailing parent) competes with the significance of child-rearing.

No, having kids isn't a "choice" like taking up knitting or whatever else. Not saying it is. Not saying that my selfish desires compete with the needs of children in the world. What I am saying is that all people have personal responsibilities and we should value them all and respect them all equally. I want kids someday, and I hope to work in an environment that accommodates that choice on my part. That said, I do think that if I have kids that it is a choice, and people shouldn't have to schedule meetings around my kid's soccer practice. Unless I'd also be willing to schedule meetings around my child-free colleagues' afternoon pottery class of course. Because guess what? To me, those two things are equal. The problem as I see it is that most people don't value those things as equal. The kid activity gets viewed as a "responsibility" - and it gets characterized that it's the child-free person's ethical duty to support the soccer aspirations of the youth of America by having a meeting late Friday afternoon instead of at 3 PM on a Tuesday - while the grown-up person activity gets viewed as "leisure," and thus as expendable.

The reality, as I see it, is that this profession fucks with people's personal lives whether they've got kids or not. It threatens to take up all one's time, sucking out any energy one might have for any "life" beyond the job. It fucks with one's social networks through the national job market, and it fucks with one's finances with the low pay and debt from grad school. One thing that this affects is when and whether people have kids. It also affects things like when one can buy a home, when one begins saving for retirement, when one sees family and close friends, etc. Now, there are trade-offs, and I am not moaning about how horrible professors have it. But yes, there are structural facts that make it very difficult for professors - single, married, gay, straight, child-having, child-free, whatever - to have a personal life that is separate from the job and that is valued in terms of material resources by employers.

Let me tell you my reality, as a single person without kids, living in an area that is far from the people to whom I am closest. There is no sharing of household chores or bill-paying. All of that is on me to do. I have to keep a stock of various medicines in my house because if I come down with some sort of ailment, I don't have anyone who could go to the drugstore for me. I have to schedule all appointments for myself and for the Man-Kitty, and I have to be responsible for making those appointments, transportation, etc. The business of day-to-day living, which I would share if I were in a long-term, cohabiting relationship, is all on me. I'm not saying that those responsibilities or realities are identical to having a kid, but yes, they are responsibilities, and they are, indeed, actually urgent and concrete and meaningful. I am not talking about wanting the job to accommodate my desire to take dance classes or something. And I've got to find a way to balance all of that with a job that doesn't acknowledge that a life of the mind can only take place once material needs are taken care of. So why don't I have kids? Dude, I don't have time to get laid, let alone the wherewithal to get myself knocked up right now. It's all I can do to keep my apartment clean. That's not a "choice" that is "selfish" on my part, nor do I have this luxurious life because I don't have kids. The reality is that my personal life blows and this profession makes that possible (at least) and causes a lot of it (at most).

But so that's my manifesto on that portion of things. Now some random thoughts related to some of what I've been reading in DD's comments. People keep saying that high school teachers or people in other professions (long-haul truckers, I believe somebody mentioned) must have it tougher than academics or at least as hard. I would note that most people who teach high school live where they grew up, and have large support networks of family and friends, which most tenure-track academics do not, because of the nature of the job market, have. Second, I would note that if one teaches high school one actually has paid sick time, and one can call in sick and the school will get a sub for the day. While technically it is possible for me to call in sick, there are no subs, and it is totally frowned upon to cancel class more than like one time in a semester. Third, I would note that at least for women, being an elementary or secondary teacher doesn't carry the stigma in the dating world that being a woman with a PhD does, and also one can work for a full ten years doing things like saving money and buying a house before having a child at say, 32. That makes a huge difference in terms of resources for having children. I could say more, but the point is, my best friend from high school is a high school English teacher, and she's far closer to being in a financial and lifestyle position to have a child than I am.

I don't write this post to discount the fact that this profession - that the industry of higher education - is inhospitable to families and children. It is. But I've got to say that I resent the implication that people without children somehow don't face the burden of the profession's broader inhospitability to people in general. Make this industry more hospitable to people and workers first, I say. By extension, people who have children and family obligations will have an easier time of it. But by focusing only on those with small children, we leave a lot out, and we set up a battle between people who really should be allies.

One final note: I've been thinking about who has children in my department. The only people who have children are people who a) were not in the first generation of their family to attend college, b) if they are women, they are "trailing spouses" whose careers have taken a backseat to their husband's careers. That's the reality I see, and that's the model for "family" that seems to be available, not only in my department but also in other departments with which I'm familiar. So yes, children are people, and we have an ethical responsibility to support the people who bring them into the world. But I think women and people who come from un-money-ed and uneducated backgrounds are people, too. And perhaps because I don't have children myself at this point, I'm more interested in worrying about that latter category of people within the academy first. But then, I'm probably just a selfish, frigid bitch. Otherwise I'd be a mother, right?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Some Thoughts on Finishing Things

You will note that I'm writing this post not having ever written the final two posts in what I promised would be a five-part series. Will this series ever be finished? Can we really tell the future? Well, not really. But while I in theory want to finish that series, I'm feeling like people shouldn't get their hopes up, if they had any hopes for this in the first place :)

And this is why blogging is infinitely easier and more rewarding than actually doing "real" writing. One can crap out on plans without consequences. In terms of my real-life research projects, well, it's not so simple to just drop the ball. And so today, after a great deal of procrastination, I did finish going through the book manuscript, and tomorrow the plan is to wake up and to go into the office to get the thing done and sent off (with all permissions paperwork! huzzah!) and that will be one item off the list. The idea is that I cannot enter June with any writing projects hanging over me. Now, as I've learned the hard way, even though I'll think I'm done, I won't really be done, probably, as apparently these projects are never done when one thinks that they are. "Done" is a relative term, apparently, and really it's about being done with a "phase" of a project as opposed to actually being "done." Dude, it's not done until it's actually published. And even then it's often not done, as you've then got to talk to people about it as if it's "new" when for you it's not been new for a year or two. This is demoralizing.

And this is why I probably would suck if my job were more research oriented, because really, I do find this really demoralizing and depressing. I realize that while I enjoy myself in the moment of writing or of researching, of having ideas and thinking about how to execute them, the whole bringing projects to completion part really is in no way satisfying to me. If anything, it just stresses me out and feels... anticlimactic and upsetting. In contrast, teaching gives me tons of gratification, even when I'm feeling annoyed by certain discrete parts of it (ahem, grading).

The fact is, I always feel like the glass is half-full with teaching (as opposed to the half-empty feeling that research gives me). So, for example, sure, I've got a few students across my classes right now who consistently look like something smells bad throughout the seat-time that they put in. And they constantly challenge my authority, and they, well, suck. But that's only a few, and so many more of them are excited. And I can focus on the excited ones. And that's not too hard, ultimately. Sure, I'm annoyed by Bad Smell Face, and by the rudeness, but that's not about me. That's about them sucking. (And I really do believe that, for if it were about me sucking then a large majority of students would have the Bad Smell Face.) And the thing with teaching is that things happen according to a carefully plotted schedule, and even if something sucks, it's going to be over. And I know, with exact certainty, when it will be over. And then there are happy surprises. In fact, with teaching I feel like the only surprises are happy. I'm never surprised by bullshit with teaching. In fact, I expect the bullshit that goes with teaching, which makes any good day in teaching a really great day. And I feel like a huge majority of my teaching days are really great days.

The problem with this whole bringing writing projects to completion is that nothing ever seems to be over and the only surprises totally blow. I feel good about something, and then there are niggling details that I've got to address. Or I think something's done, and it's not done. Or I've got to pay a million dollars for copyright permissions before the deal can be done. And then I have to beg for money (which I probably won't get) or course releases for which I am denied, even though I'm the only person in recent memory who's actually produced anything concrete with her course releases. But apparently, I have been smiled upon too often, even though I've paid for those smiles with blood, sweat, and tears. See? Nothing gratifying about any of that.

I suppose one is supposed to be gratified when the research actually comes out and people respond to it. And, yes, that is sort of gratifying. You know what though? I always feel very disconnected from the research by that point in the process. So while I love praise and interest and whatever that results from the research, it never feels like it's really about who I am right now. Instead, it feels like it's praise for who I was ages ago, and I don't even know that person anymore. I think that's been the hardest thing with the book, is that I feel like that's who I was ten years ago - it's totally not who I am right now, or what I really want to talk about right now. Sure, I want it to be a book, and I love it in a sort of abstract way, but I've been done with it for so long now that it doesn't even feel like it's mine. That's also how I feel about every single thing that I've published. I look at a past publication, and I'm like, "Wow! That's what I thought? That sounds really good.... did I really write that?" The truth is that as soon as I hit the "done" point I don't feel like it has anything to do with me anymore. And it surprises me when somebody actually associates it with me. Because I don't associate it with me.

Here's the thing. I truly believe that I'm not necessarily what makes a class great. I think that my students deserve most of the credit for whether a class goes well or not. But at the same time, I also know that I facilitate my students' greatness, and that's really rewarding for me personally, even if I can't quite take credit for their accomplishments. And it's a reward that I feel very personally, and a reward that I do associate with who I am right now and what I'm good at doing. Publication.... well, I like seeing my name in print. I like it when people think something that I had to say was smart. But it doesn't mean very much to me. The act of research and writing means a lot to me, but the outcome feels sort of belated or lame or something. I'm just not terribly proud of myself at that point.

And that's why I have such a hard time pushing through the home stretch. It's because I don't value the finishing of such things as much as I value the part in the beginning and the middle. I value the ideas, and I value the figuring out of how to pursue and to articulate them, but the end product? Who fucking cares? Really?

As lame as this blog can sometimes be, people do care about what gets written here, and once it gets posted, for good or for ill, that post is done. And if I hate a post, I post something else to get the hated post off the top of the page. Sure, it exists on the internet forever, blah, but for me, it's done. And really, for most other people, too, the hated posts don't really register. And readers either respond to what I post or they don't, but a post doesn't languish on for months and years, waiting for its moment. Similarly, I can have a great class or a lame class, but another class comes along to replace it if the previous one sort of sucked, and I've got an audience of people there who want to see what happens next. Both blogging and teaching are connected to me in the present tense. This research shit? I don't even know who it signifies, but by the time something comes out, it bears so little relation to me now that I wonder why my name's on it.

So yeah, I really like doing the research and writing part of this job. But the end result? So not motivating. And this is why I post so much about how I need to do things and I'm not doing them. Because motivating myself for something that brings so little ultimate gratification is not terribly easy. And yet somehow, I do manage to do it. But it sucks having to do it. As good as it feels to cross that item off the to-do list.

Where Did the Weekend Go?

Things accomplished:
  • reading for a class.
  • thoughts on a midterm.
  • cleaned out the fridge and went to the grocery store.
  • actually cooked a real healthy meal yesterday.
  • fell in love with Crystal Light Immunity in Cherry Pomegranate flavor.
  • quality time spent at the pool.
Things to do:
  • All research stuff (luckily it shall rain)
  • Straightening up around the house.
  • Continued Procrastination.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

RBOC: Saturday Night and I Ain't Got Nobody

  • The title of this post seems maudlin, now that I look at it, but I mean it more in the joyous way that I always respond to the song of those lyrics. I always feel like that's an awesome song, and one that's not really a lonely song in its vibe, even if it is in its lyrics. And god, I so love Sam Cooke. Is it weird to love Sam Cooke? I mean, I really love him as much as maybe any singer alive or dead (though in the same company in my head as Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, and maybe either Liz Phair (Exile in Guyville primarily) or Sinead O'Connor (really the whole oeuvre), and I know those last two may seem bizarre to include, but they are in my Desert Island Discs, such as they are). My point here, though, is that I'm writing this post on a Saturday night and sitting at home with my wee Man-Kitty and myself alone as I do it. Not in a sad way... just that's the reality of the situation. Although I didn't just get paid, because I only get paid once a month, just like somebody on welfare or social security, which is very annoying. But whatever.
  • So I did go to the pool today, and got much accomplished there (including becoming vaguely tan! huzzah!) and then went out to dinner with BFF. I'll so miss BFF when she moves away, but given the fact that most of my best friends are long-distance, I'm not terribly worried over it. I know it's a good move for her, and I also know that staying here is good for me (which, weirdly, her new job made me realize, to some extent).
  • So then I came home, and I caught up with a friend with whom I'd not chatted in a while, and, happily, she is In LOVE - capital L-O-V-E. A. From everything she describes I would totally be best friends with the New Love, and B. I'm so happy that she's happy. Now, it's true that I agree with BFF that in order to fall madly in love one has to turn off a large portion of one's brain, and thus this is worthy of contempt (of a kind), but I'm enough of a romantic to think that alongside that contempt (in my withered, cold, embittered heart) that the whole thing is totally awesome. In other words, I'm totally making fun of my friend while at the same time being totally thrilled for her. I think that this is as it should be.
  • You may be wondering about the Romantic Stylings of Crazy. You know, it's been occurring to me lately that I don't... reveal much about my "personal" life on this here blog, even as I whine and complain and appear to be "raw" here (for whatever such a designation may be worth). Well, here's the short version: it's not really been my focus of late. The thought of making that part of my life my focus is totally exhausting to me, and thus it's exhausting to write about. But here's the deal: so you all know that there was a Fake Boyfriend (aka The Interloper), and then we had a Fake Lockdown, and then I posted cryptic poetry for a while (for around 10 weeks, in fact, as Fake Boyfriend noted, when we got back in touch), and now, well, here's the deal: FB (aka, the Muse, for a minute-and -an-emasculating-half) and I talk all the time, though we've not seen one another in a year. And he is the one and only person in my life who I think gets all of the parts of me totally, and yet we're decidedly not together, in any conventional sense. And unlike back in the days when he really was my FB, I am actually not pushing for us to be together in any way, conventional or unconventional. The reality is that I don't know, really, what he is to me, other than that he's important and that he truly is in my inner circle of Peeps Who Are Fixtures. Do I want more? I don't know. It's impossible so I don't think about it. Or if I do think about it, I think about it in impossible terms. And that's actually ok now, where it wasn't back in olden times when I was trying to force it To Be Possible. Now, I'm not going to lie: if there were some way for it not to be impossible? I'd do it in a second. But the reality is that the circumstances (and the people - and cats - involved, too) are what they are. And so the reality is that sooner or later I'll have to do the online dating again or whatever. Because as far as life plans go, being true to an FAKE boyfriend isn't the highest on my priority list. There are things I want that (at least as far as I know) aren't possible with the person in question. And yet, I love him, and he loves me, but, well, it's not to be. And so, for the moment, we are what we are. And either we will manage to make it through one or the other of us securing "real" relationships, or not. But I hope we do, because losing him? I'd hate it. And beyond hating it, I'm not sure how I'd survive it. And the only other time I felt that was was with my First Love, and since I managed to stick him firmly in my life, against his will, at the time, I don't actually know what it would be to lose a person that central. And so yeah, I know I'm in a fucked up situation, but that's what it is. And obviously I'm thinking very hard about how to get out of it, and yet I seem to be incapable of just cutting the whole thing off. Why? Because obviously as pragmatic as I claim to be, and as chill as I claim to be about the whole thing, I want to be with him. Because I'm an idiot.
  • Whew! Look at that for the confessional blogging. But so yeah, that's the personal life stuff. In other news, Lebanon's on, after the news of this week, (which yes, leaves "Hezbollah stronger" but which also means that there won't be crazy bombings and kidnappings and civil war and such, in theory) and thus Stepdad and I are planning our Grand Trip to the Homeland (which is not my homeland technically, but which is in terms of my upbringing, mine). We are both so excited! And we're wicked excited because we're going together without my mom! I mean, I love my mom, but this is so awesome! It will be grand! Me and Stepdad! Touring the world! Hurrah!
  • Of course, my mom is trying to make me jealous now by claiming that she'll go visit my (horrible-trying-to-steal-my-parents) cousin in Florida. You know what I have to say to that? Beirut, baby! Suck it! Gina is so not as cool as me!
  • Yes, I know it's lame that I care about that, but my cousin Gina is a tool. That's just a fact. And she never pays for anything when she's with my mom, and it pisses me off. Dude, I've got to pay, both with money and with portions of my spirit, and I begrudge her.
  • So, as you know, this was to be the weekend of A. and Crazy 2008, but her boyfriend's dad died, and thus the family death intervened in the plans. I suspect it will happen in two weeks' time.
  • I feel as if I should delete the whole bullet about FB, but I also feel that it totally belongs in this post, as it is what's the deal with me and him currently, and thus what is the deal with me right now. So maybe delete it in your head, as that would make me feel better, maybe. Or if you choose to comment on it, be nice and don't try to advise me about how he sucks. He truly doesn't suck. Truly.
  • That said, he's annoying because both he and my mom continually badger me about 1) the Award that I'm up for (Shouldn't you have heard by now? Every. Fucking. Day.) and 2) the New Kitty. Dude, to both of them: Don't you think I'd call you up about either of those things? I mean, they'd be like the most important things in my life! I'd not just ignore them! And I call you two assholes about every other thing, why would I leave those out?
  • So I guess those are the random bullets of Saturday night. Tomorrow, I have grand plans for productivity. We shall see if they materialize.

RBOC: Still Procrastinating.... But Things Improve

  • So after making the to-do list yesterday, I accomplished exactly one thing on it. Cleaning out the Man-Kitty's litterbox. I am pathetic.
  • This morning, I did go into the pit of despair that is my refrigerator and basically disposed of its contents. This having been accomplished, it is now possible to consider making a real grocery store list that will involve actual healthy meals (as opposed to the nadir of my spring eating, which was Thursday's dinner of Oreos and milk).
  • Tonight I think I'm going to out to dinner with BFF, so that means my best course of action is to go to the grocery store tomorrow morning and to plan to chef things up tomorrow afternoon.
  • I'm considering going to the pool, which is now open.... That said, it is currently but 63 degrees. Clearly, I would not go into the pool, but rather would just lie beside it. Still, I feel as if only a stupid teenager would go "lay out" in such conditions. If she were getting ready for prom or something and wanted to be tan. Not that I know anything about such silliness (ahem, laying out the week before my prom and getting a horrifying sunburn even though it was but 60 degrees or something, thus meaning that for prom I sort of matched my pink dress as opposed to being the glorious golden-brown that I'd imagined when I decided that since it was not "hot" I could use baby oil as opposed to sunscreen).
  • In theory I should do work if I go to the pool, but I'm deciding what "work" I'd like to accomplish. Hmm.
  • I really need to run the dishwasher before I go though.... am so lacking in motivation, even for just the simplest tasks.
  • Also, can I just note that allergies - even with medicine - are horrifying right now. Tree pollen, I curse you.

Friday, May 23, 2008

In Which I Finally Come to Terms with the Fact that I Need a To-Do List

It's true. I've avoided my planner and the making of lists since the regular semester ended. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it means I've not really been getting much done other than what is immediately necessary to get done. The problem is, I've got three research-related things that I just need to finish - tying up loose ends sorts of things - as well a the admin thing to finish up (which I've been ignoring), and then now grading is looming for the summer classes, etc. This is not to mention things like figuring out shit with my car (I leased 3 years ago and now it's time to turn that car in and to figure out what I'll be doing re: transportation), wanting to get back in the groove with eating right and working out, doing a major spring cleaning and weeding out of the old homestead (which I've convinced myself I can't do until I take care of other work-related things.... See, the problem is that I have taken a break from the grind, thinking that with the end of the regular semester that I could slack, when really I've got a lot of shit I need to take care of.

So let me hereby declare this Memorial Day Weekend the Weekend of Productivity. Just ignore the fact that now that I've made my list I'm blogging rather than getting started on the list. Also ignore the fact that I've got two more parts of a series here that I'm procrastinating about writing. You know it's bad when you're procrastinating about posting shit on your blog. That's just ridiculous.

You know what the problem is? It's that I suck in the home stretch. I suck with putting the nail in the coffin on projects. I'm great on the front end of productivity, but the fact that pretty much everything (other than the classes I'm teaching) is in the home stretch... well, I feel finished, so I'm just not in the mood actually to finish. Also, and this is the rub, the way things have been going of late is that I keep thinking I'm finished with things and then static keeps happening where I'm not really finished. How annoying is that? This is a lot like when I was chomping at the bit to defend my dissertation, when I believed that I was done, and my adviser was all, "you're totally not done yet." I just hate details. I'm great with the big picture, but the details... ugh. So annoying. What's bizarre is that people often characterize me as a detail-oriented person. In reality, I'd really rather have minions who just took care of details for me. The problem with this whole line of work is that it turns out one has to take care of most details oneself if one really wants them to be taken care of.

But so, as I look ahead to the afternoon, I know that what I need to do is to check some things (even if small things) off my list. I feel as if, however, I may end up just taking a nap or something.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oh Holy Hell.

I do not know how I'm going to finish all of the many tasks on my plate. One good thing (although it also sucks) is that A. and I have had to postpone our weekend together (what her BF and the two of us have been calling our "Annual Meeting") because her BF's dad's funeral is Saturday. This means that I'll have the weekend to finish many long-overdue tasks and also it means that I don't need to worry about cleaning over the next day or two (which is good, as I suck and my house remains the House of Research and Teaching Disarray.)

But so I just finished one task that had been looming - a guest blog post for a colleague's web course. You know, this has me thinking (as have the recent and ongoing posts re: curriculum and innovation) about the "credit" I get or take for the blogging that I do. You know, there is a huge part of me that wishes that I could somehow be both Dr. Crazy and myself in one blog without it changing how I blog. The problem is, I don't think that this is possible. One of the things that makes RT the space that it is remains that I don't see it as a "professional document." I only feel dissonance when I write things for which I'd sort of like to be able to take professional credit, but then I feel like doing so would eliminate the possibility to write posts like this one, in which I promise I will say very little if anything of substance and will just ramble on. And then I think that maybe I should have a "professional" blog in addition to RT, except that I like that RT veers between this sort of post and the other kind, and also I feel like I really can only manage one blog and have it be any good. I feel like if I started a "professional" blog that it would either usurp this one or that it would be a total non-starter. And then I think about getting tenure and just vaguely associating my "real life" identity with this one, and I don't really like the idea of doing that. Ugh. It's all very annoying and there's no real answer to it. the fact is, I don't especially want to "claim" this blog as professional activity, and yet I also feel like I wish I could "claim" it more than I do now, sometimes. Then other times I'm happy I can't.

Ok, this last paragraph basically said absolutely nothing. I'm feeling quite caffeinated and scattered, if you can't tell. Filled with energy and a bit of stress, but also feeling happy that it is Summer and that I don't have Real Responsibilities. I am a mass of contradictions :)

So, Course B continues to be totally awesome and I had the bizarre experience of totally losing track of time (and my students also lost track of time) because the discussion was so engaging, and this meant that the whole 3-hour class was over before we knew it. I know. This is nuts. This never happens. I think we'd have been able to talk for 2 more hours if I wasn't feeling parched and thinking about refilling my water bottle. I just wish the same were true of the other class that I'm teaching, in terms of engagement and awesomeness. Ah well, life doesn't work that way.

In other news, I have lots of logistical things to take care of re: personal life stuff, things which I'm just ignoring, which is so not good, and I have those two research things that I've got to conclude, but it's just really hard to be terribly motivated about doing that, and also the fact that I've got to wrap up the admin stuff (I know, I know) as well as to work on my online course for fall (ugh) and to do teaching stuff for fall, and clean my office (which is a tragedy in its horrible messiness), and - and- and.

And yet, I'm feeling a bit hungry and like I could use a nap, except I'm too caffeinated to nap, I suspect. I think I've reached the point of caffeine overload in which one is both wired and tired all at the same time. Sigh.

So I'm not done with the multipart series, but I blew my wad on "serious" blogging with the post for my colleague's course, so that will have to wait in the wings for another day. And I need to plan my class for tonight, which I am not at all motivated to do. And I need to go in to school to do things, and I need to blah blah blah.

I cannot wait until Friday, when I will not need to go anyplace (in theory). And also the pool opens. And also it's supposed to be sunny and gorgeous outside.

But in order to give myself that reward, I've got to get some shit done. And I am too scattered to think about how actually to make that happen. Sigh, again.

So I guess that's the report from the World of Crazy. As you might imagine, it's, well, Crazy over here :)

Monday, May 19, 2008

An Interruption in the Posts about Changing the Face of Higher Education As We Know It

Ok, so I'm solidly into both of the courses that I'm teaching this summer, and I do think that they are going well. That said, I'm weirdly happier with the students in Course B than I am with the students in Course A.

So what's the deal with Course A? Well, part of the issue is that 4 students have never attended. I fear that at least one of them (if not all?) believe that they can show up next week sometime and that it will be cool. This is so not the case. Given the attendance policy, those 4 students already can only attain (at best) a C for participation. Today I assigned groups for the first major project in the course, and those students weren't assigned to groups. It occurs to me now that if any show up, I'll force them to be either in a group with each other or to do the projects independently. There's no way I'm saddling the current groups with them. I don't know. I suppose I'll email the non-attenders and basically say, What the fuck, over?

But Course A is also weird because it's one of my faves in the regular semester, but the mix of students in this version is just... I don't know. It's a vibe thing. I think they're fine and all, but I'm thinking that this course is not one I'll offer again in the summertime, should I teach in the summertime again. I think it suffers from the contracted schedule. I think this may be a course where a full 16 weeks is really necessary just for processing. Hmmm.

Now, Course B is awesome! I have to say, it's probably so awesome because historically this has been my absolute favorite course that I teach (and it's a gen-ed, so the fact that this is true just makes no sense given the way that people characterize what professors most like teaching). But seriously. I love this class. It's the bomb. It's excellent. And they all came in suspicious and not interested, and somehow, it's like this vibrant, awesome class. Now, part of that has to do with them (generally all pretty cool personalities), part of it has to do with me (my total love of the class), but I'd say most of it has to do with the readings in this course. This course could very easily be described as the following: "Hey, do you want to read some cool shit? Because this course has cool fucking readings. There's no discernible time period or agenda or anything, other than that everything rocks!" I know. You don't believe me. But yes, this is the course that I have, over the course of the past 5 years, designed. It's the course with the Coolest Material Ever. That said, we'll see how they feel about tomorrow's novel. I think it's cool, but I'm not certain that they will, as it's a new addition to the course. But dude! I can convince them! Because this is the Coolest Books Class!

In other news, there is a potential postponement of the Grand Vagina Power Weekend 2008 with A., for her One True Love's dad died. Now, her One True Love (who I think may be the best boyfriend ever to a girl) totally loves that we do VPW, and he is insistent that A. and I should not change our plans. That said, dude, I feel that this is totally a legitimate reason to postpone, if necessary. I'll keep you posted, as I know more (for clearly, A. and I will be blogging during our Weekend of Vagina Power.)

Hmmm... What else? Ok, so I've still not sent off that journal article, but I did good work on it today, and I will get it off before Thursday. In other news, I'm making one last pass through the book manuscript (as the whole Permissions Drama that I faced has given me a last go-round that I'd not anticipated). This is actually really awesome. Why?

1. I've caught some things that in my haste in November I overlooked.
2. I got to revise my acknowledgments (which, actually, I had to do because of the Permissions Drama) and so a person whom I'd ignored in the original version is getting his rightful place. I'm sure he doesn't care one way or the other, as it's entirely doubtful he'll ever read the damned thing, but it makes me happy to acknowledge him.
3. You know what? I really like my book. I mean, I think it's actually sort of enjoyable to read. There's not tons of jargon, and I say interesting and provocative things that nobody else has said. It's not dry. Now, it occurs to me that if I were publishing someplace better that it would be dryer (and thus more scholarly, and thus more well-regarded when it comes out), but as I am reading over it... well, I feel like I keep finding passages that are just so awesomely quotable! And I love nothing if not a strong quote. And while I've been wringing my hands about the "placement" of my book, and whether I made the wrong decision in taking this contract, what I really feel is that I did the right thing. You know why? It's the book that I wanted to write. And I think that it's a book that really contributes something and that people will sort of like to read. Or they'll hate what I say, but still think I say it well. I'm glad that's how I feel about it. And sure, I've got delusions of grandeur that it will be this Groundbreaking Piece of Scholarship, but even if it's not? I still love it. I really do.

In other news, I've not got much. I've got Friends in Love, I've got Friends in Foolish Dramatic Non-Relationships, I've got Friends Selling Houses, I've got Friends Buying Houses. I'm ... well, I'm chill. Plans for Lebanon inch forward, although depending on the "climate" (political, etc.), the trip may not be a go. Not because of my safety, as my cousin noted to my mom, but rather because, "Well, it might not be good for Uncle to go, depending." See, Stepdad was a revolutionary in his day (for the side that won, but nevertheless, it's an issue). We'll have to see. But as of the latest reports, it does seem that I'll be in Lebanon from some point between July 15 and August 15. What's most hilarious is that half of the Hometown Population of Lebanese People is also planning to go during that time, so basically I'll be traveling thousands of miles to sit around with my cousins and aunts and uncles and friends of the family. This is both good - people who speak English! Hurrah! - and totally retarded. Stepdad is most excited about taking me to historic sites, as well as to tell me all about the history of the family. See, he still hasn't accepted my chosen career or job. I think he finally realizes I won't be going to law school and later running for public office (although I suppose there's still hope for the latter), but he still has dreams of A. me being a professor at the American University in Beirut and/or B. me writing a best-selling book about Lebanon and the family. Oh, and he may be trying to marry me off. That is still unclear, although Stepdad is a busybody and loves to match-make. In other words, if this trip does indeed come to pass, I shall return with many boring as well as interesting tales :)

No word on the New Kitty, although I should have news by this week's end or at the latest by the end of next week. I'm still considering names, as well as pseudonyms. Obviously none of this will be decided until New Kitty is firmly ensconced in the Home of Crazy.

So yes, that's the mundane report of what all is happening on this end. Never fear, I'll be sure to return to the series in which I pontificate on Education and Requirements, etc. I know you're all just dying for that :)

If Dr. Crazy Ruled The World, Part III: Reterritorialization and the Disciplines

This series, which I suspect is going to be five posts total, begins with these two posts.

Hello, readers. I ended my last installment in this series claiming that I was going to continue by talking about innovation within majors, but I lied. Or, rather, I didn't lie exactly - for I did intend to go there next, and I will be getting to that probably in the next post I do in the series - but in reading the comments to my post about revising the way that gen. ed. works, I realized that I needed to interrupt my previously scheduled idea for the next post in the series with one that talks about how to deal with the tendency to try to use curriculum to "protect territory" in higher education.

First, let me state outright that I'm too much of a cynic to believe that people's territorial tendencies are going to fly out the window if somebody proposes possible ways to go about changing the curricular structure of universities. In fact, what is totally clear in most cases is that when such proposals are made, the typical response is for people within individual disciplines to dig in their heels and to "fight the good fight" to "save" territory and/or to attempt to annex even more territory in the resulting confusion. In this way, curricular revolutions at universities mimic actual revolutions. For this reason, I think it's naive to think that changing how we think about curriculum will do away with territories. Rather, I think we've got to think about this in terms of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (look at me with the jargon! cf. Deleuze and Guattari). In common language, and overly simplistically, my point is that while the process of curricular change does first involve starting from scratch, doing away with the old territories and old centers of power, that the result isn't then some utopia in which territories no longer exist. Instead, new territories and new centers of power will crop up, and so in order for radical change to happen, it seems to me that we've got both to consider the new territories that will emerge and to plot how to organize such territories in such a way that the integrity of the disciplines remains.

Practically, we want to make sure that we don't end up in a situation where "innovating" in education turns into eviscerating disciplines that aren't currently "hot" or that don't hold as much value in a corporate model for higher ed. I'm thinking specifically about the hullabaloo at the University of Toledo, here. In the president's proposals, what we see is a thoughtless - if not outright diabolical - reterritorialization, and one that ultimately would do harm to students at that university. Now, that is an extreme case. But what often happens when major curricular overhauls come up for discussion is that either a) as in the case of Toledo, such overhauls are the brain-children of administrators and they circumvent faculty governance, or b) such overhauls do start with faculty, but the departments with the most "power" (whether through grants, size of department, most loud-mouthed people, FTE hours generated) end up setting the terms for change in ways that consolidate the power that they've already got and also take away some power from weaker entities.

And so, with this being the case, it's essential to pause and to think about how to preserve the integrity of the whole university while at the same time remaining open to radical change. And this is why it's important to take seriously the comments that Dance and Maude left on my last post about changing general education. I'll quote Dance, with whom Maude basically agreed:

"I guess one thing you run into is territorial issues---can lit profs really teach speech? will math profs get mad when a physics course meets the math req?"

I'll say this: it's not that I didn't consider this as I was writing about my ideas for gen-ed. I think it's more that it was so clear in my head about how to make this work that I didn't bother to address it. This is the part of the whole innovation thing that requires political savvy and know-how. This is the part where you have to convince people, by hook or by crook, that change will ultimately give everybody more rather than less power. How is that possible?

Well, here are my scattered thoughts about how to keep a plan such as the one that I outlined for general education rooted in the disciplines and to maintain - while at the same time revising - how the power of individual disciplines influences general education curriculum.

- If one moved to an outcomes-based model, particularly for the core writing, speech, research, and math requirements, one would have to give the departments that currently house such requirements the power to determine the exact language of the outcomes and the power to determine the criteria for what makes a course acceptable for fulfilling them. The point is not "anybody can teach academic writing," for example. Rather, the point is that we do believe that our colleagues across disciplines are familiar with academic writing skills and that they can, with assistance, develop courses that fall into line with the outcomes that "composition specialists" believe are crucial to the education of incoming students. So. You leave it to your writing program to come up with the outcomes. Then, you leave it to your writing program to generate criteria that non-traditional "writing courses" would have to meet in order to establish their viability for instructing students toward those outcomes. We already do something like this at my university with the second semester of comp, in which we already have people within the disciplines teaching a handful of sections of those courses, under the advisement of our writing program director and with resources provided by that program. In other words, the point is not to make general education into a free-for-all in which anything goes, but rather to acknowledge that our colleagues do have the ability as teachers and thinkers to devise general courses in which they introduce students to basic concepts.

Now, a good question is whether people in disciplines outside of English would be willing to take this on. At first, perhaps not many. But, there are advantages, and if the pilot program of moving second-semester comp at my institution into the disciplines is any indication, there would be takers. Why? 1) This is a service course that has a small enrollment. Instead of having a lecture course with 80 students and no TA support (in a discipline like psych, for example), you have a discussion-based course with a maximum of 22 students. This can be a really great thing and a great break from the grind of teaching large intro courses. 2) There is the value of better preparing students to do the kind of writing you expect in your other courses. I hate teaching comp, but I will grant that things I don't hate about it are the personal contact that I have with students and the fact that when I see those same students in future courses, they've already got skills that I expect them to have (which is less true for the one's I've not seen in composition). Instructors in other disciplines know that composition doesn't really work for a lot of their students, at least not how they want it to work. But if you give them the tools to do some basic writing instruction (which they end up having to do anyway in those large courses that they teach even though they don't really know how to do it effectively, for the most part) and give them a small class size in which to do it, that can be a real lure.

And let's say that you do something similar with speech, writing, research. I'd say that the same benefits and attractions would hold. Perhaps the way to begin would be to start very small. Although the requirement would change, you'd start with keeping the traditional courses dominant, and have only a handful of outside offerings, and those faculty participating in those would be part of faculty learning communities led by the "traditional" departments that typically handled those requirements. It would thus encourage collegiality across disciplines, there would be support and resources for faculty who haven't typically taught such skills, and it would mean that the faculty were really engaged in innovating at the general education level - rather than just doing time in those courses, just like their students. In other words, I don't think it's impossible.

- Just as there would have to be power centered in the disciplines for devising outcomes/criteria for those core requirements, I think there would have to be similar power granted to the disciplines - or interdisciplines, like Women's Studies, which are typically marginalized in discussions of curricular change - to choose the wording of the outcomes and to designate criteria for how such outcomes should be implemented. What this might mean, logistically, would be that once small groups (of maybe three or four faculty for each general area) determined these things would be that a larger (maybe 10-member or so) university wide "general education committee" would need to exist, at least in the first few years, to ensure that those outcomes and criteria were met and to discuss strategies for doing so most efficiently. The point is not to make more work for faculty but rather to give faculty more agency in determining how curricular change is implemented and in fostering relationships between faculty across departments and providing a space for productive conversations across departments to happen outside of an administrative setting. The chairs at my university are the only faculty across disciplines that regularly meet, and they have to deal with administrata in those meetings, primarily.*** They can't do this work. This has to be faculty without those other issues pulling on their time, faculty who are in the trenches of the classroom full time. Otherwise, we'll end up with a system just as dysfunctional as the current one, one which is a burden not only for students but also for faculty.

The point is, I really believe in disciplinary expertise and I really believe that power in regards to curricular change needs to come from the bottom up - from faculty within the disciplines. That said, I really respect my colleagues in disciplines different from my own, and I wish that there were more productive interchange between colleagues across disciplines when we think about things like the general education of our students. The current system does not engender those conversations, nor does it really allow for them to happen in an ad hoc sort of way. Indeed, we end up protecting the territory of individual courses rather than working together to protect the territory of what students actually learn and how they learn it. This then paves the way for top-down approaches to curricular restructuring and reorganization in which faculty within the (wrong) disciplines are ultimately silenced and in which the general education of students across the university suffers.

This is a conversation that needs to happen not only within disciplines that traditionally have been responsible for general education - not only or even primarily within the College of Arts and Sciences - but also within disciplines that have traditionally been outside of the general education loop (like the College of Business, for example). What the current system does is exempt some disciplines from thinking about the general education of our students and burden others with the responsibility of it. This isn't good for anybody. But individual disciplines do need to have power over certain territories within that general geography of education, and they need to have the power to determine the borders between the different outcomes that we as faculty agree that all students should achieve. The point is not to diminish the expertise and skills necessary to effectively teach toward those outcomes: it's to acknowledge the expertise and skills necessary and to find a way to value those while sharing them across the university. That's not about giving up territory or giving up power: it's about using the power that we've got to make our institutions better and to better the educations of our students.

(I feel like I'm a bit of a Pollyanna in this post, and I know I'm crazily idealistic about the value of cross-disciplinary conversation. That said, if you give me this version as compared with the one that currently exists at many places like mine, I'd be willing to give it a shot. Of course, it could have disastrous consequences, but how can we know if we don't try? This is why I really do think, though, that a slow, measured approach, in which we keep the current courses that "work" while slowly adding other options would be a good way to attempt such an experiment. It's also why I think it's important to think about the logistical part of how all of this works, and to set up structures for oversight on the front end.)

***Actually, that's not entirely true. Faculty across disciplines who serve on things like faculty senate, the university-wide and college-wide curriculum committees, or the graduate council also regularly meet. However, their mission is more procedural than innovative. In other words, the curriculum committees spend their time dealing with new course proposals within the current system, not in changing the system and figuring out how that would work. Same goes for other bodies that deal with procedural issues like faculty senate. My point is that it would be nice for there to be a body that was devoted to the procedures of innovation, or some such, rather than in the nuts and bolts stuff that absorb the current bodies that are in place.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

If Dr. Crazy Ruled The World, Part II: General Education

I've been thinking for the past couple of days about how to write the follow-up to this post, in which I muse about how to rethink undergraduate curricula. Where I left you, faithful readers, in the last post is that I think we've got to rethink general education requirements. Now, I really want this post to be grand, but I feel like it's not going to be. It's sort of a "duh" post, to my mind, no matter how I try to dress it up. But so here's what I was thinking. First, I was thinking about Tim Burke's ideas about a program of study for first-years. Now, the procedure he outlines (which is lengthy, and which I won't go into here) has a lot of great things about it. First, I really like how the courses connect to one another, and I really like the emphasis on skills that we expect students to gain in the first year as opposed to x courses a student must take.

Where it falls apart for me when I think about the curriculum at my regional university is that it's too regimented a program of study. At a university where you've got students who've transferred in (from both more and less selective institutions) and where you've got students who are non-traditional in a variety of ways (even if they are traditionally aged, they typically have work and family obligations that are very different from what we think of when we think of a "traditional" college student), there needs to be much more flexibility, and I think the program of study needs to be much more clearly connected to the possibility of a major. My students don't come in wanting to explore, for the most part. They come in wanting a degree so that they can get a better job. So it's up to the faculty to trick them into exploring. That's one thing I think our very traditional general ed set-up fails to do.

The way that gen. ed. typically works at institutions like mine pretty much sucks. General education is like a buffet, where you've got to take a certain number of dishes from each part of what's offered. Some students end up gorging themselves in one area only to end up feeling gross and not having been nourished properly later. Other students can't seem to get it through their heads that the point is to be enriched by their gen ed requirements - and hopefully to enjoy them - they're more concerned about "getting their money's worth" and so only take courses that can double up for major requirements, about getting the "most value" for their buffet buck, even if they don't actually like what they choose (and even if they change their major later, which thoroughly screws them, as I know because I took this approach in my own undergrad career). They see gen. ed. as a necessary evil for the most part, which I can't believe is how the people who came up with this idea wanted students to see these requirements.

So why does gen. ed. typically work this way? Well, I'm thinking that it has played out as it has in large part because there wasn't the technology to do it better. Back in olden times before outcomes-based assessment and the computer programs that turn the specific content of courses into statistics, the only way to ensure that students got certain "skills" or "concepts" was to identify courses that would teach those skills/concepts that could be plugged in to demonstrate that students had gotten them. But currently at my institution, with new measures for assessment and accreditation, there are all of these new technologies being implemented that basically mean that the old "course x does skill/concept y" model is totally outmoded. But still, rather than revise how we think about gen. ed., we're trying to align the old model with the new assessment requirements (which is ultimately a huge time-suck and not terribly rewarding for anybody).

Now, there is the concern that if we did away with stipulating certain "core" requirements (comp, math, speech) that students would somehow come out of college not knowing how to write, do math, speak publicly, etc. There is then the further concern that if we don't outline very carefully what courses "count" that this would limit students' transferability in or out. There is also the concern that this would be too hard to monitor. Now, I'm conceiving of this idea specifically in relation to a new data collection thing that we're being required to do, in which we have to upload our syllabi, make sure that each syllabus has specific learning outcomes that align with those of the department, college, university, etc. In other words, I have this extra work in order for the university and the accrediting body to be able to evaluate my teaching, and yet we're not using it for any educational value. With this system in place, it seems to me that it only makes sense to use it to benefit students, faculty, and the university as a whole, rather than clinging to a system that values course numbers that ultimately no longer hold any value.

So let me speculate about how I can conceive of this working.

1. In place of the core of 2 semesters of comp, one math class, and one speech class, I'd like to see students required to take 1 course that would be labeled with a W (for writing-intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them lots of practice in writing formal, academic papers; one course labeled with an R (for research-intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them lots of practice in doing college-level scholarly research; one course labeled M (for math-intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them practice doing college-level math/logic; one course labeled with an S (for public-speaking intensive) wherein the specific aim would be to give them lots of practice in doing college-level public speaking. This would not do away with the old courses that fulfill these requirements, at least not initially, but it would offer greater flexibility for options, particularly in the first semester of college. There is no reason why "freshmen comp" needs to be the only class in which students learn academic writing, and, in fact, I'd argue that many first-semester comp classes often don't actually focus on academic writing. They focus on personal writing, "creative" assignments, reactive writing... things that ultimately don't serve students terribly well outside of the composition classroom, especially in certain majors. There is no reason why "College Algebra" has to be the only class that serves the math needs of all college students. Students could very easily get a great deal more out of a research-intensive course in the first year that is more closely related to the major that they think that they'd want to choose than your typical second semester of composition is, and there is no reason why a course within a discipline couldn't emphasize public speaking. Now, sections of those "traditional" offerings would still be there, and it could even be emphasized that if students would like to transfer out that these will ease the way. But given the trouble that people have in transferring courses from one institution to another anyway, it's not unlikely that even if students chose that option that they'd still need to provide assignments and syllabi to "prove" that those courses met the requirement elsewhere. If the student has to take that step anyway, what is the inherent value of "ENG 101" on a transcript? The fact is, I don't think that there is one. And I know that I could adapt my 100-level and 200-level literature courses to be either writing-intensive, speaking-intensive, or research-intensive in ways that would be really great, if this were an option. Now, you may be wondering about the overlap question. Because obviously there would be overlap. Well, this could be dealt with in one of two ways. One option would be that courses could have multiple designators, but students would still need to take four, even if they killed two birds with one stone in one course that they took. Another option would be that the instructor would choose the designator that he/she felt was most dominant in the course. Either way, students would take four courses that fulfill these core "learning outcomes" - it just wouldn't depend on taking four specific courses.

2. After these courses, the requirements within a traditional gen. ed. framework become much more flexible. As gen ed currently stands at most universities like mine, students must take X hours in a certain number of areas (humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, diversity, fine arts, typically). And there are courses listed under each area that "count." Now, why are these particular courses essential to a students "general education"? Students often choose these courses with no rhyme or reason other than that they fulfill a requirement and fit into their schedule. They don't necessarily speak to one another, nor do they necessarily build a student's skill set or body of knowledge in a systematic way. For example, I'm teaching one of these courses this summer, and I think it's fair to say that 90% of the students in there are only taking it because it fits with their work schedule and fulfills their requirement. They don't give a crap about what I'm teaching (well, or maybe they are starting to now that I've got my hands on them, but they didn't come in giving a crap - they came in doing time). Is there a way, I wonder, for us to focus more on what we hope students will learn and who we hope they'll be after that first 60 hours or so, rather than on protecting our disciplines and course enrollments? Is there a way to make general education even more flexible, so that students actually get something that benefits their ultimate majors after general education is over?

What I'm wondering about is how it's possible to keep the broad categories and yet to do away with assigning particular courses for fulfilling them. Instead, we'd arrange the "general education" requirements according to desired outcomes. So, let's say that we believe that students should have mastery of the basic techniques of literary analysis, to read literature carefully and to write about it in a systematic and formal way. Why can't any 100 or 200-level literature course do this? Or let's get even more general. Let's say that we want students to be able to "read" creative works (art, film, music, and/or literature) carefully and to write about creative works in a systematic way. Why can't any 100-200-level course across a number of disciplines work to achieve this outcome? Again, if we agree that this is possible, it doesn't mean totally doing away with courses that traditionally did this: instead, it means expanding the options to include the non-traditional, the multidisciplinary, the stuff that doesn't fit into the traditional models as they now stand.

I think the value in this would be huge, both for students personally and for education in the first two years generally. For students, it would mean that they could have a wider range of possibilities from which to choose, which would help with work schedules and other logistical concerns that they have. If they know going in that fulfilling the "creative works" requirement will include careful reading and analysis, they know how much work that will be and whether they can handle that amount of work in a given semester. In contrast, the model as it now stands is you could end up in an Intro to Lit course like mine, with lots of writing and reading, or in one offered by an overworked adjunct, in which the course consists of short readings from one anthology and 3 tests. There is very little similarity between the two courses, but they both fulfill the same requirement, technically. For education generally, the value would be that it would encourage professors to develop courses that are truly innovative in response to the needed outcomes. We'd be much less hemmed in by "how things are done" and more free to explore the best possible approaches. Moreover, there'd be room for thinking about how courses across disciplines serve the same ends.

There would still need to be a limit on the number of courses a student could take in one discipline, but if the possibilities were opened up as I suggest, I think it would be much more likely that students could tailor at least some of their gen. ed. to the requirements of their potential majors. Indeed, majors could list the "learning outcomes" that they think are most essential, and students could weight their courses across disciplines accordingly. They would still get a broad foundation in their general education requirements, but there would be a clearer link between those courses and their future specialization and their future careers.

Finally, this would open the possibility that in a given semester, certain offerings could be linked as "learning communities" or even just as "suggested combinations" that would work well together. (I think that "learning communities" are great, but the scheduling of them is often problematic for many students. So I can imagine that we'd expand our first year programs learning community program while at the same time we could just have "recommended course of study" options that would fit a larger variety of schedules.) This would 1) foster more communication between faculty across disciplines, 2) it would make the links between individual courses clearer to students. In other words, it could make a great deal of sense to take a philosophy course at the same time that one took one's biology with lab and an introductory level literature course focused on nature writing. Such linked courses would encourage students not to put off their general education requirements because, if they're organized by outcome rather than by catch-all course, they can actually take crap that interests them, at least somewhat. Further, majors can begin to develop suggested modules that students would take, which would give them better insight into the issues and concerns of their major before they hit junior and senior year.

As I write all of this out, it occurs to me that some would say that this is way too complicated. The issue, though, is that I would argue that we probably all could agree on 10 or 15 desired outcomes that students would achieve in their first two years of college. If we've got the technology to map how an infinite number of courses address those 10-15 outcomes, why not use it? Again, we wouldn't need to do away with the courses that currently "work" for general studies. Those can remain. This then would resolve the problem of transfer agreements with local CCs, because they would know what our learning outcomes for those courses are, and they could adjust accordingly. But also, if we had a more flexible, outcomes-based gen-ed, it would open up possibilities for innovation at CCs, because as long as they could demonstrate that their courses met those outcomes, their students would transfer in just fine. As for transferring out, it might be slightly more complicated, but again, there could be a suggested curriculum for students planning to transfer out. The point here isn't to throw the baby out with the bathwater: it's to find a way to innovate within the constraints.

I don't want to believe that innovation or transgression isn't possible because I'm not at an elite institution. I don't want to believe that the bureaucratic quagmire that currently exists at my institution is only going to expand and that there's no possibility of re-envisioning a new bureaucratic quagmire :) So these are my scattered thoughts on general education. In my next installment, I want to think about how this works for individual majors, because it occurs to me that if these changes were made at the gen-ed level, that this would then allow for some pretty radical stuff to happen with major requirements.

(Note: I could be on crack with this idea, I freely admit. Feel free to give me the smack-down in comments.)

eta: See Part III here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

If Dr. Crazy Ruled The World: Reconceiving Undergrad Curriculum at a Regional Comprehensive University, Part I

This will be my first post in a series (because I'm writing as I'm going) of a response to Timothy Burke's post imagining a 21st century liberal arts college and to Dean Dad's commentary on that post. I'll admit the germ of this response first came from how I felt about Dean Dad's response to Burke's post, as when I first read what Burke had to say, my initial response was, "this has nothing to do with me." What struck me about Dean Dad's response was that he seemed to conclude (though this may be simplistic) that there was no room for transgression or innovation unless one was at an elite college or university. And thus, my first comment to him was basically, dude, why would you think that Timothy Burke, at Swarthmore, would speak for you or for anything that you could reasonably achieve? Now, that was a flippant response, but it did come from a real place. From my perspective, it's important that we think about what our own institutions, and our own student populations, need and want and could benefit from, as opposed to dreaming that they could become something other than what they are without some pretty substantial intermediate steps. That said, the response was flippant, and Burke called me on it. In a comment back to mine, he wrote:
Yeah, it's absolutely an elitist kind of institution that I'm imagining. As I told the faculty at College of the Atlantic, you're a "long tail" institution: there is only a small number of students who ought to be there, and the real challenge is to find them and persuade them.

It's worth thinking about what could carry over to a wide variety of institutions, though. In some respects, that just takes us back to the kind of constructivist v. behavioralist arguments about pedagogy. Or maybe the question is, "If a CC or regional comprehensive didn't have severe resource limitations, what would it do educationally that its students might be prepared to benefit from?" I don't think, for example, that large lecture classes with typical remember-and-repeat pedagogy benefit most students, regardless of their preparation.
Now, I think this was an entirely fair response, and I agree that it's valuable to think about what could carry over to a broader range of institutions. Indeed, for whatever reason, I'm more interested, in many ways, in thinking about innovation from within strict constraints than I am in imagining innovation in a more free, or "long tail," setting. So what I've been thinking about is just this: how would changing the structure of university curricula work from the vantage point of a regional, comprehensive, non-selective university work? If I'm at No-name, Mid-tier State (some version of the moniker that Dean Dad often applies to my type of institution), how might I imagine "innovation" in higher education?

Now, there are two primary things that I have been thinking about in terms of such a project. One, I've been thinking about the mission of my particular institution. This mission, basically, includes the following:

  1. We educate the people of our region toward a goal of them being more employable.
  2. One of our main goals is bettering the community of which our university is a part.
  3. We value educating the "whole person" - we are not just job training.
Two, I've been thinking about how we fit into the broader structure of higher education. On the one hand, we need to have a structure for our curriculum that allows students to transfer in, either after attending community college or after attending a SLAC/research university (either because of money issues/family issues/performance issues). On the other, we've got to have a structure for our curriculum that allows for students to transfer out, into SLACS or into research universities. Thus, in some respects, the situation at No-Name State is in some ways more difficult to negotiate than the situation at your local CC - we've got to be "transferable" both on the front and back ends. Our curriculum is both determined both from the bottom (what CCs need to transfer in) and from the top (what can transfer out, # of credit hours students need to graduate).

So, the short version of all of that is, how in god's name can we imagine a new kind of higher education from the vantage point of a regional university, with very low admissions standards, that mainly caters to first generation college students, and that has absolutely no donations coming in from alumni/ae? Very little grant money (for we have a 4/4 load)? Very little state support (for the most money goes to the flagship)?

These are the questions that I've been considering. And the only answer at which I arrive has to do with the wholesale revision of general education requirements.

Now, before I get into what I'm thinking, let's talk about why this will never work. This will never work because how general ed. requirements work at most universities is that they expand rather than contract. The idea is that there are categories that students must fill in, and then courses get plugged in under the categories that will fulfill them. The thing is, because this is how it works, faculty don't have a huge investment in trimming back. General ed. requirements become the battleground in which we fight for the centrality of our disciplines. Moreover, they become the battleground in which individual faculty fight for course enrollments. If a department's value lies in its ability to generate FTE hours, then gen. ed. is essential in establishing a department's power and a discipline's value. At my institution, FTE is tied to a department's funding and in my case directly to travel funding for faculty. It's also tied directly to knowing whether a course you're scheduled to teach will "make" enrollment, and so it has to do with knowing, as a faculty member, what you will teach in a given semester. I can "count on" my gen. ed. courses in a way I can't count on "electives" or even on courses within the major. Thus, revisions of general education requirements almost always end up ending in stalemate and basically in failure. (I should note that many at my institution are suggesting that we're heading for another look at gen. ed. revision, and that many have noted that they want me on that committee. Oh joy.) In addition to faculty entrenchment, this is a difficult place in which to innovate when it comes to administrative pet projects, as gen. ed. is the bread and butter of an institution like mine - it's what asserts that we are a "quality" institution, it affects accreditation, etc. In other words, there are a lot of things against innovating at the gen. ed. level.

That said, I think that's where we need to start with innovation. But how, at an institution like mine, do we change how gen. ed. works keeping in mind that students both need to be able to transfer in as well as to transfer out? How can this possibly start from an institution like mine?

I've got lots of ideas, but I'm tired of writing for now. Thus, I'm going to leave you with this cliff-hanger. If you've got ideas, or comments, do leave them. You can expect my Grand Plan for General Education in the coming days, and I'll take any feedback that you give into account.

eta: See Part III here.

On Ideas, Sickness, Teaching, and Other Tasks

So for the past three days I've been muddling along with the "end of semester" cold that I typically get, except for that it's actually the beginning of my summer term, which really sucks balls. In addition to that, I have a blog post brewing that I really want to do in response to Timothy Burke's post about his imagined liberal arts college and in response to Dean Dad's response to it, and I've got loads of excellent ideas (some of them nyquil-fueled) but ideas which I can't concentrate enough to articulate (sniffle, drugs, sleep, sniffle). I'll give you a teaser, though: it starts with a reform of general education requirements. So now you see why I can't actually articulate these ideas, yes? But I shall. Sooner or later. But so in the meantime, your homework is to read their posts and to see what you think about them. And then when I get around to my magnum opus of a response (which may end up being a multi-parter) you'll be totally caught up. See how awesome that will be?

Did I mention that I'm sick? This is very annoying to me. At first I thought it was just a horrible allergy-related malaise, brought on by not remembering to take my allergy medicine one day. Alas, this is not the case. That said, it's merely a head-cold, so I really don't have much to complain about. Also, even though it sucks because I'm beginning teaching two courses, it does not suck as much as it would during the regular semester, as I have no other obligations than to teach, which means that I've been free to sleep and rest for all but about 4 hours per day. This, I imagine, is what most students and non-academics imagine that an academic job entails in normal circumstances. Ah, if this were all it entailed, life would be bliss! Bliss, I say!

Now, you may be wondering how the teaching is going. This is my first time teaching summer school, for until this point the money was not enough to lure me away from the lengthy break, and I've also had conference obligations that would have gotten in the way of doing it. But so far, I'm pretty pleased with things. Random thoughts:
  • I love teaching classes that I've taught bunches of times before. I'm such a better teacher! I feel so much less burdened by the teaching! I know what works and what doesn't! Even if I change out certain texts, the courses themselves are solid. It really makes a huge difference.
  • I had some impressions on the first day of each class that are proving to be totally wrong. First, I thought that the students in the intro course were totally not going to be engaged. NOT SO! Second, I thought the other students were much more likely to be very engaged. NOT SO! We'll see how it plays out as time passes.
  • Once again, I am reminded of my love of teaching non-majors who don't give a shit about my area of expertise. It's easy to forget this is the case when I throw comp into the equation, but when I think about lit courses that majors don't really take, it becomes ever more apparent that I love me a non-major. There is a part of me that fantasizes about a time when I'll teach 3 sections of English for non-majors and just one upper-level course for majors. No, I'm not kidding. I love me some intro to lit. Even when I'm sick. And somehow I have the power to make students who aren't in any way into it and who are very suspicious of me think that it's great. It's like I'm a witch or sorceress or something similar.
Now with the end of the semester and the sickness, tragically I've got some non-teaching tasks piled up. Those would be:
  • a blog post for a colleague's online course.
  • loose ends stuff for the admin gig which is all but finished.
  • loose ends with the book.
  • loose ends with that article I can't finish.
In theory, I've got to do all of these this weekend. In practice, I will probably be scrambling into next week with these, which isn't ideal since I've also got to ready the homestead for...
1. A.'s grand visit for Vagina Power Weekend 2008.
2. New Kitty (who should be ready next week or the week after).

But so yes. This is what is going on with me. Thank god I'm beginning to feel less congested, or who knows what would become of me.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

RBOC: Stuffy Nose Edition

  • Nothing sucks worse than a spring cold. Just nothing.
  • Summer school students are not better students than regular semester ones (though many of my colleagues have claimed this to me for years). No. It's true that they do appear to be very motivated, but what seems to motivate them most is spending less time on a subject that they think is horrible (a) and bullying the professor into giving them less work (b). I'm hoping that a good many of them drop my one class, because while I'm sure they're nice people, I can also tell that a handful of them will most certainly drive me batty.
  • You know what's lovely? Tea.
  • I have so much to do and I haven't done any of it.
  • No other news. This might be the most pathetic post ever.

Monday, May 12, 2008


I love graduation. Yes, it's boring, and long, and this year I was annoyed by a number of things related to the ceremony (some changes made, a speaker that was in no way inspiring, the length of it...) but all in all, I really am so happy that I attend graduation and I see how excited my students are that the faculty are so excited for them.

My institution is really unique given its size. With around 15K students, you'd expect that we wouldn't really know a lot of our students, and that we'd really just be window-dressing for an event like graduation. But while we are window-dressing, adding a sense of occasion to the event with our fancy robes, I feel a sense of connection with the students that I never felt with my professors at any of the three institutions at which I walked through graduation. How is it possible that such a large school fosters such connections?

Well, I think part of it is that the campus was designed to make us know our students. The rooms in which I teach can't hold more than 25 or so students comfortably. This means that in most semesters, I see only around 80 students total (assuming I don't get any course releases - fewer if I do). I know all of their names. I have a lot of individual contact with them. The longer I've been here, the more I realize that this is probably the perfect teaching situation. I actually was talking to FB about his situation (at a research university), and I found myself thinking that my job was better than his, for he can see the same number of students that I see, with no TA support except for in intro classes, and yet teaching isn't really valued and he only rarely gets to teach what he wants. Where I work, teaching is really central to what I do, and I have a number of students that isn't extreme. And I get to teach whatever I want, for the most part. That's pretty awesome.

But anyway, so going to graduation isn't merely something that I do because it's part of the job but rather it's really gratifying for me to attend. Why do I love graduation?

Well, let me tell the story of this year's graduation - or at least give some highlights.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The sky was a pure blue, and it was sunny and mild, although not hot. All of the robing happened in our student center - with the faculty located on the bottom floor. In the time when we were initially congregating, departments got together and took pictures in all their finery, asking for colleagues in other departments to take the pictures. We congregated outside vying to get the best position in the line-up so that we would get "good seats" for the graduation. (Typically it's a battle between my rowdy department and another department on campus to be first in line so that we can be in the front row. My chair is especially competitive about this so that he will be in good position to accost our graduating majors with hugs after they walk across the stage. This seating also means that one can have a grand time assessing the horrendous shoe choices of those graduating. Note to novices of graduations: wearing 5-inch spike heel sandals will not serve you well at a graduation ceremony. There's a lot of walking and a ramp, for god's sake. You may think that you should choose the most awesome looking shoe in creation, for it is all that will be seen, but really, comfort should trump style, just a little. Except flip flops and/or running shoes are also not terribly good options, for you'll look like a shlump. It's really a fine line you have to walk.)

But so after establishing our position at the head of the procession, we waited. I chatted with colleagues from across the campus and from within my department, and basked in the glow of the compliments I received about my truly beautiful robe. I have to say, my robe is awesome. It is a blue that matched the sky that day, and really blows less awesome robes out of the water with its fabulousness. At any rate, so there we stood, waiting to follow the students who were a floor above us, and who would lead the procession to the venue where graduation was held. They had to walk past us, and as their procession began, the faculty applauded them. (A colleague of mine and I were ring-leaders in getting the applause going. This lasted for about 15 minutes, and yes, clapping for that long did get a bit old, but as my colleague noted, in previous centuries people would do 3-hour-long ovations, so really, this was nothing.) You should have seen the looks on the students' faces - so proud, so pleased, so excited - when we began clapping, and when those further back in the line realized that we were clapping. Professors called out to students that they knew, and some who had cameras took pictures.

We fell into line behind the students, and then made our way to the graduation location. As the platform party concluded the procession, the president, provost, and deans said hello to faculty, thanked us for coming, smiled and shook people's hands. And then the ceremony began. I love the opening of the ceremony for two things especially. First, I love that the families of my students are always acknowledged and applauded. Most of my students are first-generation college students, and their families will make signs and really it is their graduation, too. It never fails that there are children in the audience who have made signs for graduating parents, and every year I find myself choking up at a sign that says something like, "Happy graduation, Mommy!" It's just so awesome. Second, I love that the faculty are recognized at graduation, that we are thanked by the administration for the work that we do. Sure, it's just a gesture, but it's the kind of gesture that shows that we're valued at my institution. And it's nice.

Speakers, blah blah blah, and then it comes time for students to have their names called and to walk across the stage. This is where vying for the first position in line pays off, for it means that all of our majors who graduate see us and we can call out our congratulations to them. I always feel a bit bad for the students of departments that are less vocal than we are. They must feel a bit slighted. But this I can do nothing about. My students get lots of faculty love, and they always look so touched and overwhelmed.

It's easy to forget what a big deal graduation can be when one has been through 3 of one's own (not including high school). By the time I got the PhD, the only reason I walked was because my mom insisted. It was an empty ritual for me at that point. But for my students, graduation is really meaningful, and I love that I can be there as window-dressing to make that day more ceremonious for them.

I got an email from a student today, telling me how touched she was that I was there and cheering for her as she walked across the stage, and thanking me for being her professor. It wasn't necessary for her to send that email, but it was so freaking nice that she did.

And this is why I love graduation. After all of the freak-outs and complaints and poor work and irritation of the semester, after all of the things that we complain about with the job, with graduation all of that falls away. My work is done; their work is done. And that's something to celebrate.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sex and the Classroom

As I think I mentioned in another post, I've been reading the Chronicle Forums a lot lately (not sure what's inspired this), but this recent thread has been of special interest to me, as I teach stuff that makes students "uncomfortable." The initial post was an exasperated one (as most of them are) in the "In the Classroom" forum, in which a professor complained of students who want alternate assignments because of sex/violence depicted in the films that he/she (hu?) screens in class. The thread then careened wildly into the territory of "no students should ever feel uncomfortable for any reason" vs. "academic freedom! uncomfortable students should go to Bob Jones University!"

So why am I posting about this? Well, it's because I teach novels and films and even poems that feature sex and violence (and drugs and rock and roll). I also teach in a very conservative area (notoriously so) and my student population tends to feature a lot of conservative Christians (protestant) and devout Catholics. And while my evaluations have suffered because I'm a feminist, or because I grade "too hard" for students' tastes, I'll note that when it comes to the actual material that I teach.... well, they seem to be able to hang, even if it makes them "uncomfortable." I've never had a student ask for an alternate assignment (though I'm sure it is possible one would, and I did have one veer toward asking for such), and I've never had a student complain about what I assign (including a novel in which a character forces his lover to piss himself and then fucks him in the puddle of his lover's urine; including a play in which oral sex is simulated on stage and in which pedophilia is enacted, including the movie Fight Club which features the image of penis and LOADS of violence, including Brokeback Mountain where men actually - dare I say it - kiss) to a higher-up (although I'm sure that could happen, too). So have I just been lucky?

Well, maybe. But I think there's more to it than that. So I thought I might post about how I manage the fact that the material to which I gravitate tends to be graphic (in lots of ways), that this material is what I often teach, and that I teach students who often are pretty, well, innocent.

First, before I get into practical things that I do, let me note: I think that I have a lot more room to teach what I do because I'm a woman. And I'm a non-threatening straight woman. Identity politics play a role here, and I feel like a male professor, or a butch lesbian professor, would get a lot more shit for stuff that I do without thinking twice.

That caveat in place, how do I approach "sensitive" material?

  1. I give students fair warning. On the first day of class, I go over the material we'll read/view, and I note stuff that might make them squeamish. I also remind them of what to expect in the class immediately preceding a provocative assignment. In one class I teach that features controversial material almost exclusively, I actually include a statement that I have them sign with the syllabus. The contract reads as follows:

    I have read the syllabus for [course], and I understand that the texts in this course will explore and represent the full range of human sexual experience. I understand that the content of course materials may be explicit, and that the ideas and concepts covered in the course may challenge my own personal beliefs. In enrolling in this course, I pledge to approach the content of the course critically and with appropriate seriousness, even if I find some of that content disturbing or shocking. Further, I understand that members of the class will have different opinions, perspectives, and ways to approach questions that arise from course content. As colleagues in the course, we each have the responsibility to treat each other with civility and respect without sacrificing the intellectual rigor with which we critique each others’ ideas. If I am unable to meet these basic requirements, I understand that I will be asked to drop the course.

  2. I think it's important to give students fair warning, not only because they should know what they're getting into with any course but also because I think the whole "alternate assignment" thing is bullshit. The deal is this: if you take this class, you've got to take it. This isn't about me forcing my "beliefs" on my students - hell, I'm uncomfortable periodically in the class that I teach with the contract - but rather because that's what the class is about. The classes in which I teach provocative material are either not the only section of the course or they can be substituted with another course. If I was teaching the one and only section of a course that fulfilled a requirement, which couldn't be substituted with another course, I might feel differently. But given the fact that my students have options, I feel like if they choose Option Crazy, they've got to hang. I mean, I'm teaching what I'm teaching for a reason. No alternate assignment would give them the same thing.
  3. But so since I refuse the whole "alternate assignment" route, how do I negotiate student discomfort? Well, I make it very clear, throughout the semester, that my aim is not to change their morals or beliefs. I welcome dissenting views. I just expect that dissent is respectful. So, for example, if a student is uncomfortable with representations of homosexuality, that's ok, but they've got to go deeper than "that's wrong." They can say, "I believe that this is wrong, but what makes me uncomfortable about it is X." That starts a conversation. There's nothing wrong with being uncomfortable. In fact, it's often necessary. The issue is if one can't get beyond one's discomfort to think in a critical way. That's all I'm looking for. I'm not looking to make students into something they're not: I'm just looking to make them more open to thinking about stuff that makes them uncomfortable.
  4. Right along with that, though, is the need, before they ever see something really shocking, to set a tone of seriousness. You can do this in a lot of ways. In one class I start with scholarly articles. In others I'll start with discussions of form and how form and content are interrelated. The point is, I abstract the shocking stuff, either through an aesthetic approach or with an approach that is heavily theoretical. The point in many ways is to give them the tools to intellectualize - not to react emotionally. Yes, they'll still have emotional reactions, but they need to be able to translate those into academic discourse. If you don't give them those tools up front, then they freak out.
  5. I also think it's important that I ultimately and fundamentally believe that my students can handle things that challenge them. What does that have to do with it, you say? I'd say loads. If they think that you think they can't hang, they won't. As the professor, you set the tone. You tell them the expectation. Sure, you've got to explain why it matters; sure, you've got to make a case for stuff that is provocative. They deserve that. But if you make a solid case, and you have confidence in them that they will go with the program, in my experience, they do. Without fuss. It's when you lack faith in them that they challenge you. That they don't trust you, because you don't trust them. And yes, this is about trust, because if they don't trust that you're not trying to "convert" them to some sordid lifestyle or that you have a good reason for teaching this material, all is lost. And no, it's not enough that you stuck it on the syllabus. That's not enough for them to trust you. Not at all.
So those are my thoughts on teaching provocative material in the classroom. I'll note, I was shocked this semester when a good number of my students in the contract class listed the novel in which the fucking in urine scene happens as their absolute favorite of the semester. It's a really good story, they said, and one they'd never have read if they'd not taken my class. Yep, I've convinced a bunch of straight, Christian, conservative students that this is a great novel.

I suppose my work here is done :)