Sunday, August 31, 2008

Peer Review, or Who the Hell Do I Think I Am?

So I just finished reading, writing the reader's report for, and submitting the reader's report for a manuscript that I agreed to evaluate for Very Good Journal, and I'm left feeling... Oh, I'm left with a lot of feelings.

First, can I just say that this is service I really, really like. In theory. Even though it's basically invisible. I like reading stuff that may be the Newest Thing in my field, I like feeling like an expert who has something to contribute to scholarship seeing the light of day, and I like feeling like I can offer feedback that writers can actually use.

But. I've done this now exactly two times (for I'm not all that much of an expert), and in both instances I recommended that the articles be rejected. And that kind of nullifies most of what I listed above about liking this kind of service. Because it sucks to know that I may be responsible for somebody not getting a publication. I don't like that at all. And it also sucks to wonder whether my thoughts about the relative publishability of something are fucked up, and to wonder whether I'm being an asshole, and if I am, whether that actually makes editors think that I'm an asshole and so they won't ever ask me to review again. And in the case of the report that I just finished, the journal does double-blind review, and so what if I was an asshole to somebody fancy? (Though I really don't think somebody fancy would have submitted something that cited - or, rather, failed properly to cite - Wikepedia, so that's some small consolation.) To make a long story short, this whole reviewing manuscripts thing for me is bound up with a lot of my own insecurities and problems with dealing with criticism.

See, I hate nothing like a reader's report. Even the good ones make me shudder upon first looking at them. I hate the impersonal tone - "the author offers insightful analysis of x"; "Crazy fails to address y." I hate that feeling of dealing with the suggestions for revision, like I'm attempting to read a map in the dark or like I'm trying to use telepathy to figure out what some ethereal entity wants from me. I hate that feeling that sometimes happens where one wonders whether the person actually read the essay that I wrote (though admittedly, I've only really felt that one time). My problem is not with complying with the comments so much - for I am typically fully willing to change anything I've written in the service of it being published and have no love affair with my sentences or any such thing - but with the fact that the comments exist at all. I hate reading what strangers think about what I've written. Absolutely hate it.

So when I read a manuscript at the request of an editor, I bring all of that baggage with me. And in some ways, that's probably good, because I really am committed to trying to offer practical advice, even if my recommendation is to reject. I care a lot about being a useful reviewer, and I care a lot about offering suggestions that somebody can use going forward.

But so what? Somewhere, some academic, who really did have an interesting idea even if the execution wasn't so grand, is ultimately going to read comments from a hostile reviewer, and that hostile reviewer will be me. Even though I wasn't really hostile: I was disappointed. I so wanted to be able to say, "this is the most fantastic essay in the land! publish away!" But instead, well, I couldn't in good conscience even offer a revise and resubmit. It just wasn't good enough, or so I thought.

But who the hell am I to make that kind of decision? When I look at myself, at my CV, whatever - I still don't feel qualified. I feel like a total fraud. Because sure, I've had some modest success with publication or whatever, but who the hell do I think I am?

I think what makes me feel even more... insecure... about this most recent report is that I've currently got an essay out for review with this journal. And so I imagine getting back reader's reports about my own essay that are as harshly critical of my work as I was of the manuscript that I read. And I imagine the editor reading my report and then getting reports back that my own essay is a piece of garbage and deciding that I'm a bullshit scholar who doesn't know anything. And yes, all of this has nothing to do with the manuscript that I reviewed, but I sure would feel better if I'd already heard back about my own essay. (Apparently one report is already back and the other is overdue; the overdue thing worries me, because I feel like it means that the person hasn't had time to articulate all of the ways in which I suck but with substantial revision could maybe be acceptable, but of course what it probably means is that the person just hasn't bothered to look at it yet and the overdueness means nothing about my work, positive or negative.)

But so the point of all of this is that it is totally weird to be in a position where one is called upon to review the work of others when one is subject to the same review of one's own work. If you let yourself think too much about it - which I don't recommend people do, so you may actually want to skip this part - probably the same 20 people are all reviewing each other's work at the same time, passing judgment on one another simultaneously. How horrifying is that?

And yet, the report is done. That is one thing I can check off of my list of things to do, and ultimately, I do think that my response to the manuscript was fair and that I offered some suggestions that would make the essay hang together better, make the argument tighter, and make the thing really a super-interesting piece of scholarship. And maybe my lack of confidence when it comes to thinking about my authority in this area will not last forever. Maybe at some point I'll actually feel qualified to do this work. Maybe it's like teaching - that the more you do it the more authority one feels. One can only hope.

But it still sucks to know that I'm a person who could be responsible for somebody else's professional disappointment. The idea was really a good one. I hope the person realizes that I thought so.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Blogger as Online Teacher

So as you all know, I am, for the first time ever, teaching online this semester. And now that the semester is actually getting underway, I've got some thoughts (scattered though they may be) about how I feel about teaching in an online - rather than in a traditional classroom - environment. This post will probably be boring for those of you who've already done online teaching or who already do it, but since it's new to me, well, I'll be writing about it.

I suppose I'll begin by talking about why I've not taught online before now, especially given the fact that I'm pretty comfortable with technology and universities so love people who are willing to teach online. (Remember the space constraints of my uni? You can imagine how jazzed they are to have us do web-based courses.) I guess there are a few things that stopped me to this point. First and foremost, I was worried about the time-sucking potential of online teaching. I was both right and wrong about that, I think, but more on that later. The second is that there are very real issues about teaching online and intellectual property at my university. See, when you teach online here, the university "owns" the course. So if ever I stop teaching this course, they can take my shell and just hand it over to somebody else to teach. Nobody's entirely sure about what counts as part of the "shell" and so this has made many people in my department reluctant to teach online here, particularly when it comes to entirely original courses that they've developed that relate to their research areas. So, for example, I'd probably never teach any of my upper-level courses online, or my intro-to-lit course online, because everything I do in those courses is so intrinsically related to my research area and to the stuff on which I publish or may publish in the future. Third, the pedagogy that drives my teaching (god, how pompous does that sound?) depends a lot on interaction between me and my students. I'm not big on lecturing, and I'm not big on a model for instruction that is about me giving students material and them spitting it back at me. For a long time, I didn't really see how I could emphasize a student-centered instructional model in an online environment.

With all of this in mind, I sort of said, screw online teaching. I don't need to do it, so I won't. But then last semester, the opportunity to teach an upper-level course for a program outside of my department came along, and I thought, you know, this would be the perfect chance for me to try this whole online instruction thing out. I don't care that the university will "own" this course, and this will give me the chance to experiment with my teaching and to think about my pedagogy in ways that my typical teaching assignments don't allow. And so here I am.

The course is basically an advanced composition course. The point is to get student thinking about how to bring the methods and approaches of multiple disciplines together in their writing, and while I have chosen a content-based theme for the course, really that's just to give us stuff about which to write. So, with this in mind, the challenges before me were (and are) the following:
  • How do I get students writing regularly enough for them to see real improvement in their writing over the course of the semester?
  • How do I choose primary text material that inspires an interdisciplinary approach as well as models such approaches for students?
  • How do I encourage conversation in a course in which students never lay eyes on one another, which I think is an essential first step in getting students to think about writing as an entryway into certain kinds of conversations?
  • How do I keep the course "student-centered" when I am the "administrator" of all of the technology? How do I stop the course from becoming one in which I pontificate and students regurgitate?
  • How do I make the course user-friendly enough that students with varying levels of comfort with technology can easily access the materials and engage with the assignments of the course? (This is actually a huge problem: a lot of students sign up for these courses just because they don't want to spend time in class because they have other commitments, and they don't necessarily feel comfortable with an online environment at all.)
  • How do I make the course appropriately challenging without making too much grading work for myself? (This is another huge issue: many students enroll in these courses thinking that they will be less work than traditional courses or that they will be easier than traditional courses.)
  • How do I design a course that students find rewarding and that uses my expertise without giving up ownership of that expertise by putting it all online, and thus giving the university ownership over it? (In other words, how do I make the shell of this course completely inhospitable to the course being taken over by easily exploitable adjunct labor, who would potentially be required to teach the course with a higher enrollment cap, etc.?)
So where even to begin with all of those challenges?

Well, where would any blogger begin? With a class blog. The blog is really at the center of the course, and I've set it up so that students are doing most of the blogging. The idea is that the blog is taking the place of what I'd normally do in the traditional classroom: presentations and response-type writing assignments. Each blogging assignment is very clearly structured, and the idea is that students will do writing of medium-formality in this space.

The second thing is that commenting on blog posts is worth a good chunk of the final grade. In an online environment, I don't know how else to make sure discussion is central, really, and with the commenting requirement, I'm hoping that students really engage with one another's ideas - if not exactly as they would in a traditional classroom setting than at least similarly.

Now, this is a lot of student-generated writing. How to evaluate it? Well, as for the comments, if they are commenting substantively a certain number of times per week, that's how their grade is determined. Basically, I'll just quantify their participation, and that's where the grade comes from. As for the blog posts themselves, I'll respond to each with a rubric, a brief comment, and a grade. If they want more feedback than that, they'll have to come to online office hours.

The rest of the grade comes from their final project, which is a typical research paper assignment sequence. That will be the biggest chunk of the grading work, but should look like the typical grading work that I do in my traditionally-housed comp courses.

I'm not sure how the whole thing will turn out, but so far, I think, so good.

As for the time-sucking properties of the course, well, it's both more and less time-sucking than I'd imagined. More in the sense that it gives me license to waste time by sticking stuff up on the course blog and Blackboard site, checking email, fielding questions about the technology, etc. Things that usually don't take up so much time with my traditional courses. On the other hand, the bulk of the prep for the course is done, and because the class is really designed to put students at the center of producing the "knowledge" of the course, it takes less time than my traditional classes, or seems as if it will. There is less improvisation on my part in terms of delivery, if that makes sense. The "discussion leading" stuff that normally takes lots of my time to design for my traditional classes is already taken care of by the assignments, and I've already prepped all of the readings, so it's just a matter of showing up and guiding them along when they encounter all of that.

I have planned to include some brief "mini-lectures" about aspects of the writing process, and I'll be doing those as the semester goes along. That said, these things kind of take half the time, because normally I'd need to write this sort of thing up and then present it in class. The whole "presenting" thing is built into the writing in the online environment.

All in all, I'm pretty happy with what I've put together. I think the class is challenging, and I think that it does keep students and active learning at the center. Let's hope that these are not famous last words :)

Into the Groove, Apparently

You will notice that it's before 8 AM on Saturday morning. You will also notice that I'm writing on my blog, which must mean that I am awake. Ah, the joys of being back on my school sleeping schedule. I've been wondering why I've been so exhausted and zonking out around 11. I suspect it has something to do with the whole wake-up time thing, no? Ah yes, it all makes sense.

My mom is actually visiting my cousin this weekend in Florida, so I can't call her to bother her (for normally we do talk on Saturday and Sunday mornings, although usually not quite this early, but sometimes I make her talk to me this early because I figure she's my mom and she has to put up with things like early phone calls from me), and so here I am, bothering you. I don't really have anything to write about. I'm kind of boring, really.

Well, I suppose I could write about Sarah Palin, but I've yet to decide what I actually want to say about her. I suppose I'll leave it at this for now: the thing that's brilliant about Palin as a choice is that because she's such a dark horse for McCain to have chosen - such a brief time in public life, such a short resume, etc. - she can, to some extent, be whomever McCain wants her to be. As opposed to a Biden, with a 30-year record of decisions and public activity and votes, Palin has something like 3 things that you can go after her on: the whole internal investigation in her state thing, her policies on drilling/energy, and ... yeah, I'm sure there must be something else. You can't really go after her on the pro-life thing because the obvious response would be that you're a baby-murderer who thinks she should have aborted her youngest son. It's a personal attack rather than a political - or even an ethical and moral - disagreement. And so, McCain gets to shape her as a "reformer," even as she's somebody that the base of the Republican party loves for all the social conservatism stuff she believes in. We don't have much of a real record on her to attack, but at the same time, she's the one candidate in this race with executive governing experience. Do I think she's legitimately qualified to be Vice President? No. But I can't actually make a case for why not precisely because of the ways in which she's almost qualified, if that makes sense. In other words, I think the choice of Palin was ultimately diabolical and brilliant. And it will be interesting to see how the Obama-Biden ticket handles it.

In other news, I am positively sick of 90-degree weather with the ragweed raging so out of control that I cannot be outside for 30 seconds without sneezing, in spite of allergy meds. Where in the heck is fall? Because I'm done with the late-summer allergies and the late-summer heat. Done, I say.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Don't Try This at Home... Except Woohoo!!!!!

So I know you're all dying for an update about the Impossible Classroom Fiasco of Fall 2008. Or even if you're not, I'm going to give it to you, because it has turned out to be a bizarre tale of hope and job happiness.

So as I wrote Tuesday, things did not look at all good. This was not because anybody didn't acknowledge my problem or because anybody was uncooperative. My Fabulously Wonderful Administrative Person's lack of enthusiasm when I first presented her with the difficulty had nothing to do with lameness on her part: it was that she had a list of about 20 faculty members who had similar problems (probably about 5 of them with the very same room I was complaining about). The issue is, space on our campus just doesn't exist. We would need something like three brand new academic buildings just to have the same space ratio of other universities in our state, and given the budget situation... yeah, that's not happening. We are also the lowest funded university in our state compared with the others even aside from the problem with buildings, so yes, we run a very tight ship here. Anyway. So FWAP's lack of enthusiasm has to do with the fact that she's a realist. I knew when I brought the problem to her that I was asking for the impossible. She often accomplishes the impossible. Her realism combined with the whole accomplishing of the impossible thing is why she's wicked awesome. She is also wicked awesome because she used to watch All My Children daily in our student center with a person who is currently an A-list celebrity, before he dropped out of college here. But I digress.

But so anyway, throughout the next day, FWAP exhausted all the possibilities she knew of, and then my chair, who'd gone to look at the room for himself, started making calls trying to get something done - at least for one of the two classes. Nada. When I talked to my chair at the end of the day, he endorsed the idea that students should contact upper administration, because all conventional approaches to the problem had been exhausted, though he also promised he'd keep trying. We also discussed Plan B options for the course where the room really was totally unacceptable, and there I was.

That night, I started thinking that I didn't necessarily want a bunch of random emails from my students to litter the inbox of upper admin with no explanation, but I also didn't want to sit there and monitor what my students might write (free expression and all that). And then I thought to myself that maybe it would make sense for me to advocate on my own and on my students' behalf, not demanding a solution, but offering the higher ups warning that they might be hearing from students while at the same time outlining the nature of the problem, both in terms of my practical concerns (safety, being in such an enclosed space) with the room assignment, as well as how the room would affect the pedagogy of the two courses. I thought, why expect students to fight this battle if I'm not willing to put my neck out for them?

Note: I do not have tenure. Note: I've barely met the people whom I was emailing, with the exception of my dean, whom I know enough to greet if I pass him on campus. But again, I felt like it made sense that if I was going to tell students to send emails that I should put my neck out first. This could have been highly stupid.

It could have been, at a university other than mine. I work at a great fucking university, and I have such great respect for the upper administration. Let me tell you what happened after I sent the email.

  • First thing Thursday morning, I received a wonderful reply from my university's president.
  • By Thursday afternoon, my provost was personally making calls and having her staff make calls all over campus in efforts to resolve the problem.
  • Also Thursday afternoon, FWAP and my chair were congratulating me for alerting the administration to this problem, which affects so many faculty in our department, and that as a result of my efforts that there was movement in resolving not only my problem but in resolving other people's problems of a similar nature. Crazy is an activist! Crazy is a hero!
  • By today's end, I've got a new classroom assignment, a room normally not used as a classroom but that has all of the technology I could dream of having and enough space for all of my students, and apparently other people have gotten new classroom assignments as well.
Within 36 hours, the impossible has happened. And my president and provost thanked me for bringing the problem to their attention (I'm hoping that they can use what I wrote to them as ammunition when the state tries to cut our funding further), and expressed excitement about the work that I'm doing in the courses that I teach. And more than that, they fixed the problem. They responded with action, not just with congratulations on my efforts and hand-wringing. And that is because, whether I disagree with some of their decisions or not (and I do, as any faculty member would), what they care most deeply is our students and the education that we offer here. And it's not just talk. That's really the truth. And I believe that more now than ever, because I've seen the direct effect of that caring on me and my students.

I'll admit, though, I was embarrassed that I sent that email after I sent it. I felt like a whiner, and I felt like I was stepping out of turn. I felt like I was stupid, and that as an untenured person I should be keeping my head down. And even still I'm embarrassed because of the fact that I caused all of this commotion. I'll be honest: I would have just put up with the room, no matter how sucky it was, if I had been able to accomplish the stuff on my syllabus in the second class (showing films) in the room. I've done that before. I've made due with limited or ridiculously small resources, carting technology across campus in rainstorms in order to do what I need to do in the classroom. I didn't want to cause problems for people, and I didn't want to make a stink on a campus where the resources are so limited, and where I understand that those limitations aren't really the fault of anybody here.

But you know what? Certain disciplines often bear the brunt of limited resources, and English is one of those disciplines. Why? Well, because how many resources do you need if you just "read books and talk about them"? And so as much as I do feel embarrassed to have raised such a ruckus in this instance, I'm also glad that I did, because it highlights that people - even in my throwback discipline - are doing things in the classroom that require resources.

Even people like me, who don't do a ton of techie things, because they know that they can't count on having those resources in their classrooms. Seriously: the biggest roadblock to that room for me was that there wasn't space to break students into groups for small group discussion and activities (both classes) and that there wouldn't be room to bring in a DVD player to show the films on the syllabus in the one class. And the class where I didn't have to show films, I didn't have the technology to bring in recordings of the text we're reading over the first half of the semester, but I figured out how to deal with that (I loaded the recordings onto my iPod and brought in the teeny speakers that I own). Sure, when I've got a smart room I do more. I put sample outlines up on screen to show students how to organize papers; I show youtube videos that connect the material of the course to students' actual lives; I will put a poem up on screen so that we can look at it and analyze it together; I'll put outlines of notes on screen or plans for activities on screen so that I'm not spending so much time writing on the board. But I'm, even in the smartest of classrooms, fairly low-tech because what matters to me more than technology is getting students engaged, and in my discipline, there are lots of great low-tech ways to do that.

But even "low-tech" in a discipline like mine requires some tech. It requires more than a tiny blackboard, and it requires enough space to move students around. It requires a room where you don't have constant hallway noise, and where students don't feel suffocated.

The point is, I am so... just ecstatic, really... that my administration read the letter that I sent to them and that they responded with enthusiastic support for what I do in my classroom, and that they demonstrated that support with action, not just consolation and excuses. And so as embarrassed as I am about having complained about my problem, I'm also kind of proud that I did, and proud of the response that my complaint generated.

Of course, this makes me wonder whether I should do more letter-writing when I'm disgruntled. When I last did this, in irritation at some reportage on CNN, I got a series of replies from John Roberts, an anchor on CNN's morning show. Now with this, I've apparently alerted my upper administration to a horrible problem on campus, I've fixed a horrible problem for my students, and everybody thinks I'm great. Perhaps my tendencies to avoid the earnest activism are misguided. Perhaps if I wrote letters more frequently, the world would be a different place. On the other hand, perhaps my successes have to do with the fact that I only take such action when I'm truly impassioned about something. And slightly premenstrual. 'Tis hard to know.

The point here is, the whole Impossible Classroom Fiasco of Fall 2008 has come to a totally positive resolution, and it's left me feeling positively warm and fuzzy about my administration, my institution, and really, about my life as a faculty member at my institution. Who knew something as insignificant as a crappy classroom assignment could inspire all of that?

New Year's Resolution Check-In

So, since last I whined here, I paid bills (ah, the joys of the once monthly paycheck!) and looked over the Great Credit Card Project of 2008. While the paying down of the debt is slow (and slower still because I will need to send a check re: permissions next month, and I'm not sure if I'll get money for it from my university), I have done some calculations, and indeed, I shall (knocking wood), barring a disaster of some variety, be out of credit card debt by June 2008. Now, of course the initial goal was to be credit-card-debt-free by January '09, but I realized in May or so that this would not happen. This is ok. As it is, once the credit card debt is gone, I will be in a position to save to buy some sort of house or condo or something, and by June/July '10 I will be able to have approximately (again, barring disaster or some unforeseen circumstance like not being able to do summer teaching as planned) have a down payment of near 20K saved. Note: this is not taking into account the salary bump (meager though it will be) that comes with tenure (insert finger-crossing tenure superstitions here). Obviously I'll still have student loan debt, and car payment debt, but still, according to my calculations, I will be in a position to buy something in 2010/2011. And this without some sort of windfall or parental influx of cash. Let's not think about the position I'd be in if I'd been more financially responsible in the past five years.

Now, the other major resolution of the year was fitness. Sigh. This resolution has not worked out so grand. I, however, am now resolving for the year not to be a total wash, and I will embark afresh on this goal Sept. 1. Rome was not built in a day and all that.

So, now with the bills taken care of and with me feeling all proud of myself for making significant headway since January, I'm now considering what else I should do with this day. I think I should:
  1. Shower.
  2. Go to the bank.
  3. Go to the office.
  4. Go pay rent, figure out annoying situation with laundry card (note: this is something I've needed to do since BEFORE my travels this summer).
  5. Review Manuscript for Very Good Journal (where incidentally my essay is still under review with one reviewer, though one review is, apparently, back. I have fantasies that I'll hear back before I submit my tenure binder that the essay is accepted, but I am preparing myself for a) rejection or b) revise and resubmit news, both after I submit the tenure binder).
Or I could just laze about and do none of the above, though that does not seem wise.

Whining and Moaning

Well, the semester is back underway, and I am feeling vaguely rested after sleeping for 8 hours last night plus a 2-ish hour nap yesterday evening. I know that in a week or two I'll be back in the rhythm of things, and I'll be more used to the schedule, but for now, I'm feeling like I got hit by a 2x4.

See, the issue is that I've got a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule. Many people would probably like to smack me now for complaining about an embarrassment of riches. Consider me smacked, but I shall continue to bemoan the dark side of this otherwise glorious situation. On the one hand, I'm very grateful to have finally achieved this holy grail of schedules. For four and a half years, I taught a 5-day-a-week schedule. This made sense because two of my courses were comp, and I really do believe that comp works best on a 3-day schedule because it means that you can force students to write and to think about their writing at least 3 days of the week. I then taught a literature class or two on Tuesday and Thursday (depending on course release stuff it would be one or two). This made sense because I like the 75 minute block for literature courses because it allows us to go deeper into the texts. There were minor variations in this schedule - a couple of night classes, whatever - but that was basically the schedule. Five days, the bulk of my teaching done by noon. The drawback of this was that I had no large blocks of time during the academic year for researchy things. The benefit was that because I did 2 or 3 hours of teaching per day I hit a stride and was never really exhausted by the teaching.

Throughout that time, colleagues would often pull me aside and say, "You know you could get a better schedule than this, right?" and things of the like. But while I had the traditional comp obligations, this was the best schedule for me and for my students. What's changed this year is that rather than teaching traditional comp I'm doing what amounts to an advanced comp course for graduating seniors in another program, and I'm doing it online. This means that I had the power to switch to the 3-day-a-week gig (which I basically had last semester, too). The configuration of this is that I teach my usual schedule on T/H (9-12) and then an evening class on Wednesday, plus the online gig. Now, the benefits of this are that I do have large blocks of time - Friday through Monday - most weeks. It's rare that we schedule meetings on Mondays and Fridays, so I can pretty much decide that those days are sacred, barring unusual circumstances. On the other hand, I often have meetings scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, plus the schedule requires that I load office hours onto those days as well. The short and whiny story is that this means that I'm pretty much fried by Thursday night, and Friday becomes a total loss.

I learned this last semester when I had a version of the same schedule, but I'd conveniently repressed the fact over the summer. Now, I am reckoning with the pitfalls of this schedule once again. I know that in a week or two I'll be in the groove, but right now? I feel like a zombie.

In other news, you may be wondering about the quest to change the classroom assignment about which I complained earlier in the week. As of now, it's still the same, but the wheels are moving to perhaps get it changed. This may or may not actually happen (we've got a horrible space problem on campus), but I'm pleased that at least People with Power have been alerted to the problem and are on the case. I've come up with a plan B for the class that is the biggest problem, should the room not get changed, and in a worst case scenario, I'll use it. I suppose whatever the ultimate practical outcome, I'm pleased that I'm getting support from beyond my department for the problem, and hopefully by speaking up (and by my students speaking up) this horrible classroom will no longer be in play in coming semesters for classes such as mine.

I have tons to do today, so I should sign off. More later, I suspect.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Am Very, Very Tired

I know tonight was the big convention night, the night I was actually supposed to watch whole-heartedly and be inspired and everything, but I was beat, dude. It was more important to watch Shear Genius and Project Runway (which I missed last night) and to lay around. I napped a bit, and yet I'm still exhausted. Clearly, I'm not in the rhythm of the semester yet. Clearly.

But so yeah. Go Obama and all that.

A more substantive post tomorrow that includes actual content about why I'm so freaking tired out from this week.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rock on, Joe Biden

Joe Biden + Bill Clinton + Hillary Clinton + Michelle Obama = One Inspired Crazy.

Remember all my suspiciousness and jadedness and all that? The Democratic National Convention has, for me, delivered. I am inspired.

ETA! And the special super-secret appearance by Barack Obama!!! (note: it's unfortunate that his initials are B.O.) I'm in love with my party! I'm so excited (although I think the Pointer Sisters song of the same title should be retired, as should "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang).

Go Obama! I've been a resistant supporter, but I am now on board!

(And yes, I know this is because I am easily swayed by rhetoric and advertising, but who isn't in this stupid country? Sue me.)

Slick Willy Is My Boyfriend

Say what you want about Bill Clinton, but when he speaks, I cheer at he television. And clap. And scare my cats with my enthusiasm.

And right the fuck on that he overtly addressed all of the concerns about Obama and foreign policy and experience. Right the fuck on. And right the fuck on that he went after the republicans. (And yes, I know Kucinich went after the republicans, but Jesus, I'm from Cleveland and I know Kucinich is a nut-job. I love him, but Jesus. And he wasn't even slotted close to prime time. And that's kind of the point of the whole convention thing.) And Clinton mentioned Katrina!!!!! For god's fucking sake!!!! And he noted that Republicans called him out because he was "inexperienced" and too young, and connected that to what they've done to Obama! I've been waiting for this shit all convention long! Go, Slick Willy, go!

Go Dems!

College for the Underclass

I'm using the word "underclass" here intentionally, as opposed to working class, or even lower-middle-class-whose-parents-didn't-attend-college, although I suppose those other ways of putting it would be less charged. Before I begin, let me tell you where I'm coming from. I started thinking about posting something about this when I read Heu Mihi's incredibly thoughtful post on "de facto elitism" a few days ago. And then I was thinking Monday night, as I listened to Michelle Obama's really amazing speech, it's so interesting how she made a point of eliding the fact that the "college education" she received - first at Princeton and at Harvard Law - is not the "college education" that most Americans - especially those working-class Americans that the Dems are trying to win over - can ever hope to receive. And then finally Tuesday morning I thought about it further, in relation to Dean Dad's post, which I may well have misread or projected onto because I've been thinking about these other things, though I do think that my response over there is related to what I'm about to discuss, whether Dean Dad himself would admit that or not.

So I've talked about my class of origin on this blog before. I started out working-class. My parents had high school educations. My dad worked in a steel mill, until he was laid off, and my mom worked first in a hospital, then a credit union, then in a bank, throughout my upbringing. I'd say that we were further down on the class ladder than a lot of people who might identify, or whom we as middle-class people might identify, as "working class." My parents didn't have city jobs with great benefits; my mom didn't have the choice to stay home and not work. And perhaps this is because both of their families of origin could probably be characterized not as working class but as the working poor. My dad was one of 7 and his mom was a single mother. My mom was one of 10, and while both she and my grandfather stayed married, and my grandmother worked, neither finished high school and they never got ahead, never owned a home, never really got their heads above water. So yeah, that's where I come from.

And my parents (well, my mother, to be honest) wanted college for me. As my mom will tell you to this day, she couldn't get her mind around anything other than that maybe I could go to community college and keep living at home. An actual university degree? Going away to school? People like us couldn't afford that kind of thing. People like us didn't "go away to college." Nobody in my extended family had, that's for certain.

And so I fought with my mom, and I took her to college night at my public high school (in a working-to-middle-class border suburb, home to lots of Catholic cops and firefighters, where we moved after our house in the inner city was foreclosed when I was 13) and she met with advisers and they helped her with all the forms (which "people like us" have no experience filing) and told her what to do, and calmed her down, and well, I ended up going away to college. With a small amount of student loans, a good amount of grants, and a small amount of money from my mom and stepdad, working work study jobs a minimum of 15 hours a week throughout and full time every summer, and some scholarships. There was no "college fund."

I don't remember the GPA you needed to have in high school to get into Undergrad State U when I applied, but today, 17 years later, it's a 2.5 on a 4.0 scale. I also applied to another state university whose admission requirements were about as low. And that was it. I never took the SAT because neither of the schools required it. See, I was going to be a journalism major. Those two schools had fine journalism programs, and so why apply anyplace else? Nobody clued me in to the fact that education was about more than getting a degree that would get me a white-collar job. So that's why I "wanted college." And I had no clue about college rankings or the fact that where you go to college "matters" in the broader scheme of your life and what opportunities you can hope to have later.

This was not because I wasn't a "smart" student. Or because I didn't care about learning things. I was and I did. It's just that those things sort of weren't the point. Those things were luxuries that weren't for people who came from my background. Looking back, I could have gone to a "better" school, with my GPA in high school and all of my activities, etc. But the list of possible choices for me was narrow - even if it felt, in applying to those two mediocre regional schools, like a world of possibility was opening up to me. In a world where my parents' (mom and stepdad's) combined income was about 40K, after 20 years of full-time work, the idea that I could make more than 20K a year when I graduated seemed like I'd be rich.

And so off I went to become a journalist. Because you picked a career and then you picked a major based on that and then you took all of the classes that you were supposed to take to finish as quickly as possible. And grades kind of didn't matter very much, as long as you didn't lose your scholarships. So how did I get from there to here?

Well, that path begins because I was admitted to the honors program at USU. We were required to take a year-long seminar in English, one that was in lieu of traditional comp and instead was about literature. The theme of the one that I chose was "Women and Literature" and I was enthralled. And it turned out, I was really good at that class. And my professor told me in office hours at some point over the course of that year that I should consider the English major and that I should consider graduate school when I was done. And I told her that she was crazy. I needed a degree that would get me a job. I didn't want to teach high school (what I thought was the only job for English majors), and there was no money for graduate school. I was no fool: I knew that I needed to graduate from college and to make some money. Period. Who did she think I was?

And that's where the conversation ended.

Now, throughout that year I was also, "smart" student that I was, trying to "get requirements out of the way" - requirements that would fulfill gen. ed. but that also served as pre-reqs for the journalism major and political science minor that I'd chosen. I did not choose courses because they interested me because that wasn't the point of college: I chose courses that "counted." Let's just say that my GPA that first year reflected that. Let's also note that once my path changed, that GPA mattered.

Looking back, I am certain that those professors whom I took in the first 2-3 semesters of my college career probably thought that I wasn't interested in the pursuit of knowledge or in being changed by my education or in expanding my perspective on the world. I was a B-C student, and I sort of did my time and that was that. The world that I thought was open to me was very, very small. The only classes that I felt really compelled by were my English literature classes, but who would ever be an English major? What in god's name would a person do with such a useless degree? So sure, I was "smart" and I was taking courses I "needed." But I'm sure I didn't look terribly "smart" to my professors and I'm sure that I was the sort of student about whom they complained to their colleagues: anti-intellectual, who thought that all that mattered was getting a piece of paper that would get me a job at the end, doing time in college as opposed to really learning. And you know what? They were probably right.

The point is, however, that even though that's who I was to them, that isn't who I would turn out to be. Ultimately, after many tears and heart-wrenching conversations with my mom, I decided to change my major and minor (the minors would become writing and women's studies). This was totally a scary choice for me, and scary for my mom, too. It was not how things were supposed to go. It meant that I wasn't at all secure about where my future would take me. It also meant that I would be flying without a net in a world that I had little mentorship in entering (the world of academia) and little clue about how to navigate once I got there.

All of this ultimately did lead to graduate school, and I was able to squeak my way into a well-regarded PhD program after doing time in a middling MA program. And now I've seized that brass ring that is a tenure-track job, and it turns out I'm teaching at a school whose students on the whole look a whole lot more like the student that I was when I entered college than the student that I would become after a few years. I teach classes in a discipline that most look at with disdain, a discipline that's not for "people like us" who have bills to pay, a discipline that offers a degree that will get you a job working at a fast food place. Even most majors are very career-driven, aiming at high school teaching and not at a broader "life of the mind."

I suppose where my background influences my approach in this setting is that I'm keenly aware of the fact that "college" doesn't mean the same thing for this class of students that it does for students who end up at elite SLACS, selective public R1s, or, and I probably don't even need to say it, the Ivies or Fancy Private Universities - the non-Ivy Ivies. No, I teach at a "College for the Underclass," and what that means, as schools like this become increasingly corporatized, is that administrative ideas about what "serves" this student population ultimately reinforce the idea that college is just a path to a job better than the one your parents have. Those students who start out with the fewest privileges and advantages in P-12 education ultimately are relegated to institutions of higher learning that care more about offering programs and courses that attract students who are looking for that magic piece of paper that will get them a white-collar job, and those institutions invest their resources in ways that put that way of thinking ahead of the mission of educating the whole person. This is all part of the institution attracting students, increasing enrollments, and looking like they're "serving the community" by producing workers. This then brings in more money (not only in tuition dollars, but also from the state).

So what are instructors in disciplines like mine, that aren't easily attachable to future employment other than teaching, supposed to be doing in this sort of institutional setting? The fact is, particularly when we teach general education courses, we're usually teaching to a pretty hostile - or at least ambivalent - audience. What is our role not only in the classroom, but also in the broader institution? What should we be doing in our classes, but also what should we be fighting for at the institutional level in terms of program development and curriculum? Because the reality is that the models that are most readily available for what we should do, which we usually internalize in graduate school, have little to do with the kinds of institutions at which we work.

I realize now that I've thought a lot about this stuff without consciously thinking about it (if that makes sense) throughout my time here, leaving the grad school model behind and returning to what I needed from my discipline when I was first an undergraduate. I was always deeply suspicious of professors who indicated that the Pursuit of Knowledge was an end in itself, and deeply suspicious of professors who believed that The Study of Literature was in itself meaningful. No, at Colleges for the Underclass that approach typically doesn't really get a professor very far. Dude, what's meaningful to most of my students, as it was to me when I began college, is a paycheck and a career you don't hate (notice I didn't say a career that you love and that inspires you).

So what is a professor to do in the classroom? Well, what I try to do, and this is in no way to say that this is the only thing to do, is I try to show my students that having an intellectual life, a life in which one is curious and in which one thinks about new things and in which one takes pleasure in things that aren't directly related to a paycheck or the day-to-day, is not something that is a luxury for other people, but rather that it can enrich the lives of "people like us" whatever they do after college. Sure, they may go off to be accountants or teachers or to own their own businesses or to work in a human resources office somewhere. But college can give them, in addition to that qualification that gives them entry into the white collar workforce, new ways of seeing the world around them, new approaches to problems in that world, and new avenues for experiencing pleasure in that world. In other words, even at a College for the Underclass, education need not be just about job training. And I'd go even further and say that it shouldn't be.

In terms of the institution, it's integral, I think, for people who believe the above to fight at the level of curriculum and policy-making to make sure that those "extras" don't get lost. It is sickening to me that people who have had educational advantages and privileges, people who bemoan the fact that students are too anti-intellectual to be engaged, are often responsible for insuring that our students will become a permanent underclass that has little respect for broader knowledge and that will go on to live anti-intellectual lives post-college. And those people who have had educational privilege and advantages then congratulate themselves for wanting to help those poor kids who wouldn't otherwise have had a college education to get a job they wouldn't otherwise be qualified for, now that college is pretty much required for most work.

If we allow ourselves, with the educational privilege and advantages that we have had, to settle for this version of higher education in institutions like mine, I do feel like we're giving up on our students. We're saying that they don't have the abilities or the ambitions that students at other kinds of institutions have, or if they could, that it's not important to foster those abilities and ambitions. I mean, most of our students are not going to go on to "great things" and most don't aspire to much more than "normal" lives, in the communities in which they grew up or very like the ones in which they grew up. My thought is, wouldn't those communities be better if at institutions like mine, at Colleges for the Underclass, we graduate students who come away from their educations with more than just a piece of paper? Isn't it really our responsibility to do that?

I'll close with this: I am not saying that job training isn't a part of what we do at this sort of institution, nor am I saying that it shouldn't be. I'm not saying that there is not value in applied majors, nor am I arguing that all colleges and universities should serve students in identical ways. I have taught comp classes filled with business majors; I have taught general education courses in literature where the greatest insights came from students outside of liberal arts majors. And I don't try to "convert" these students to the English major, though I do give them advice if they ask me about it. The point isn't that an institution like mine shouldn't be investing in programs that offer a direct path to the world of work. The point is that what I want, when I teach those students in those programs, is to give them tools to have a richer life in whatever they choose to do post-college. I want for them to see that there is a "point" to reading and thinking about literary texts even if the most visible "point" is only intellectual pleasure in their non-working hours.

But when we talk about higher education, I really wish we'd acknowledge more explicitly that it doesn't mean the same thing for all people. I wish we'd acknowledge that often really great students who have incredible potential end up at universities like mine not because they don't care about learning but because they didn't know any better: that they thought all colleges were the same. At the end of the day, that's not their fault. It's ours.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I Should Have Known It Couldn't Last

Everything with the start of this semester has been so calm and peaceful. No parking hassles; things getting up and running with the minimum of angst.

Until this morning.

I am in a classroom (or is it an office with a bunch of desks jammed into it? 'Tis hard to know), with each of my full to enrollment cap classes. When I say the room is small, I mean the students on the far wall of the classroom cannot get into the desks without moving them into the aisle putting themselves touching the wall, and then moving the desk back underneath them. This room includes an overhead projector, a VCR (no DVD), and a tiny television. The room is so small that I could not drag the "smart cart" with equipment over to do what I need to do even if I wanted to. It seriously wouldn't fit unless we kicked some students out.

I am trying to get the room changed - the first time I've EVER asked for that accommodation - but the secretary seemed less than enthusiastic about fixing this plight.

My stomach is totally in knots. I literally cannot run the second class - where no one ever drops - in this room. Like CANNOT DO THE THINGS ON THE SYLLABUS. But what if they cannot move me? Like, anywhere? What will I do????

The other class... well, it's not ideal, but with 5-6 drops it would be do-able.

But the one where nobody ever drops?

I feel like I'm going to be sick.

The REAL First Day of School

Before we begin, let us note some things that one shouldn't do on the night before one's real first day, i.e. the first day that one is back in the classroom.

  1. Watch the Democratic Convention all night long (though I will say, from what the pundits described I timed my tuning in just right - I came in with Kennedy and so apparently missed 2 boring previous hours), feeling at turns inspired but then also disgruntled (more on that perhaps later, for I think I was just being weird and petty and I really did leave Michelle Obama's speech thinking that I really wish she were running for president, because wow did I find her awesome).
  2. Think to self, "Self, it is 11:30, you should go to bed! School tomorrow!"
  3. Consider briefly ironing dress for FDoS, but then say, "nah, I'll just do it in the morning."
  4. Proceed to answer the phone around midnight (you weren't really sleeping - eyes closed, yes, and in bed, yes, but also with mind racing) when FB called. You only talked to him for 8 minutes (3 extra on top of what you said he could have when he first got on the phone, which you think is awfully generous) but then proceeded to go back to the tossing, the turning, the not sleeping.
  5. Finally drift off to sleep, but then proceed to have a series of dreams (and I do mean a series - like around 5) that cause you to wake yourself up because you're laughing. I do not remember the dreams, but apparently I'm hilarious. Or at least I think I am.
  6. Well, and Mr. Stripey thinks I'm hilarious, too. So hilarious in fact that my laughing woke him up and he thought that it was time to play. At 5:30. He was irrepressible, and so I got up to give him and his brother breakfast, and attempted to return to bed. But then, alas, because I woke up, and because the allergy meds had yet to kick in, I was a snotty hacky mess, and so could not fall back to sleep.
So I'm awake. On maybe 5 hours of sleep. And I've got to teach two courses back to back, both of which I have to (well, because I'm me) give actual lectures in.

Things I'm happy about as I embark on the semester:
  • One student who never should have been enrolled in my senior-level class dropped. Already. Even without seeing the syllabus. It's like a miracle of some kind.
  • I'm really excited to teach every single thing I'm teaching. Again, this is like a miracle of some kind.
More to report later. I've got a post on teaching lit to uninterested folks brewing, as well as some other things rattling around in this head of mine.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Back to It

And so it begins again. Classes start today, and I'm sitting at my computer, freshly showered, slurping down coffee in an attempt to wake up, and very soon, I'll be heading to campus, even though I don't actually teach today, to get loads of work done at the office.

I really wish that I didn't need to go in this early, but as any seasoned academic knows, the first day of classes is most certainly not the day to tempt the parking gods. I have high hopes that if I'm there by 9 that I won't need to wander the campus searching for a parking space in a lot that is not my own. Cross your fingers for me.

Other than that, I don't have much to report. I'm excited to actually get back into the classroom tomorrow, although I'm also feeling wistful about the summer that is now officially over. In other words, how I feel on this morning is not unlike how I've felt at the start of every academic year that I can remember. Business as usual.

Except, of course, there are things that aren't business as usual this year. First there's the whole Adventures in Online Teaching thing. Second there's going up for tenure. Third there's the fact that my department has begun an MA program, with which I'm fairly involved, and so that means new committee work and new challenges.

Mr. Stripey doesn't quite understand the academic-year schedule, and so last week during the days of work and meetings he would look at me askance every time I returned home, like, "What up, yo! Where have you been? Because, see, I'm very adorable and don't you want to be with me all the time?!! Everybody else does!" By "everybody else" he means Man-Kitty, though of course, that's not even really true, for it's not uncommon for the Man-Kitty to attempt to escape the exuberance that is Mr. Stripey by crawling into a bag and lying very, very still. At any rate, I'm hoping that the more mature and understanding M-K will some how communicate to the wee one about how things go in the academic year. I don't think that they actually speak to one another, but I do think that they perhaps communicate telepathically.

God, I do not want to go to school. Why can't summer last just a few days longer?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Dinner

I'm not sure what inspired me, but I've actually made something real for dinner today - something that will be excellent leftover fodder for the week: meatloaf. I use the recipe in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and it is divine. It cooks in the oven as we speak. And I made a lovely cucumber and onion salad. I'm currently considering what I shall make for a side vegetable. Ah, cooking is so relaxing and fun.

Tomorrow the semester begins. I plan to be in the office by 8:30 and to stay there until the online course is totally up and running. At least I'll have something yummy to take with me for lunch.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Meme! It's Been So Long!

As seen at New Kid's.

1. My uncle once grew huge marijuana plants in his backyard. No lie.

2. Never in my life have I thought sky-diving would be "fun" or "exhilerating."

3. When I was five I apparently ripped up an art project in kindergarten because it wasn't "perfect." This then led my teacher to tell my mom she needed to make sure that I didn't think that I had to be perfect, because I was far too hard on myself.

4. High school was very fun, but also I felt weirdly like an outsider, even though reports from later in life indicate that I was ridiculously popular, even though I didn't live in the right part of town, have the right friends, or do the right clubs. Who knew?

5. I will never forget standing on the balcony of a Hapsburg palace watching the sun set with a glass of wine in my hand, just after introducing myself to a Fancy Person who would later become one of my most cherished mentors.

6. Once I met Harold Bloom. He looked like Jabba the Hut.

7. There’s this boy I know who works at NASA and was actually instrumental in putting the space shuttle back into space.

8. Once, at a bar, I told a man who was approximately 6'5" that he needed not to touch me because he didn't know me. He looked at me like I was the anti-christ and left the bar. Apparently, I'm scary when strangers touch me.

9. By noon, I'm wondering why I've wasted so much time, except for on the days when I'm teaching in the morning.

10. Last night I watched a Lifetime Movie featuring Laura Leighton of Melrose Place fame called Love Notes. It was awesome.

11. If only I had the power to rule the world and to make everything that I wanted happen exactly the way I want it to happen.

12. Next time I go to church will probably be Christmas or Easter. That's the kind of Catholic I am.

13. What worries me most is whether I'll ever find a solid romantic relationship that is fulfilling and all that, especially given this stupid profession.

14. When I turn my head left my neck hurts a little bit. I think I slept funny.

15. When I turn my head right I see two sweet kitty cats.

16. You know I’m lying pretty much whenever I'm lying. I'm a shitty liar.

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is Depeche Mode. Sure, they exist in the 21st century, but they're nowhere near as cool.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be Iago's wife, Emilia. Or perhaps Kate, of Taming of the Shrew.

19. By this time next year I will have tenure, baby! (crossing fingers, knocking wood)

20. A better name for me would be ... what's a better name than Crazy?

21. I have a hard time understanding the traffic circle on my campus. When everyone uses it propoerly? Excellent. When they don't? Road rage.

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll kill myself. I know that makes me seem like I'm anti-life-long-learning and all... yeah, I am. Fuck more school. I've got a Ph.D. It's enough.

23. You know I like you if I actually invite you to my house.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be my Mom and G.

25. Take my advice, never go to graduate school in English if you're not prepared for years of under-employment.

26. My ideal breakfast is ... Well, it depends. If I'm hung-over? Eggs over-easy with hashbrowns and sausage. If I'm not? My own homemade french toast (made with challa bread) with bacon and with a side of melon.

27. A song I love but do not have is "Get into the Groove" by Madonna. I know. I suck.

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you go to the art museum. It's the bomb.

29. Why won’t people stop talking on cell phones in high-traffic areas, like stairwells, in front of my office, and, I don't know, THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET?

30. If you spend a night at my house a kitten might wake you. Deal.

31. I’d stop my wedding for a death in the family.

32. The world could do without self-righteous vegetarians and non-smokers who insist others must conform to their life choices when not in the homes of those who espouse these beliefs.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than have a house infested with cockroaches.

34. My favorite blondie is me, really. I know, that's lame,but seriously. The blondness of me is great.

35. Paper clips are more useful than staples that don't go all the way through a stack of paper.

36. If I do anything well it’s cooking.

37. I can’t help but feel righteous indignation about any number of things.

38. I usually cry right before my "lady time," I blame the hormones. I also usually cry at The Ghost Whisperer. The people crossing over make me emotional :)

39. My advice to my nephew/niece is ... I have no such advice because I have no nephews and nieces.

40. And by the way, I've got nothing. I'm lame. What can I say?

More Political Musings

Ok, so I'm still glued to CNN and MSNBC. One thing that I feel is potentially... problematic... is that everybody keeps comparing Biden to McCain. You know, because they're peers. It's just Biden isn't actually running against McCain. It probably doesn't help that Obama flubbed and nearly introduced Biden as "the next president... er... vice president" in his speech this afternoon. Woops. I'm hoping that this stops once McCain picks a running mate.

I have to say, I'm wondering, though, whether McCain would (or could) choose a woman for a running mate (I'm thinking of a great article in Elle that talked about how many women are in McCain's inner circle and support him, in spite of his record on "women's" issues, and also that every pundit I've seen speaking for McCain today has been some sort of "minority" - woman (a few different women actually), African-American, Latino - and I'm wondering what that would do to Obama's chances. Is it possible that McCain would make such a move (a) and if he did, would he come out as the more "progressive" seeming candidate (b)? One thing is that a woman wouldn't be as tall as Mitt Romney, so they might actually look "right" together.... as long as she looked kind of like a man and all and couldn't be spun as "shrill" and "inexperienced." According to the NYT projections, there are no ladies on the list. But if he chose a woman running-mate, with the right chops, what would that do to, say, Ohio, where many of my oldest friends and where my working-class-historically-pro-union-democrat family lives? Where my Reagan democrat father and stepmother live? You know, all of those people who don't trust Barack Obama (because he's black- shh! we're racist even though we know it's wrong!) The way Ohio goes, so goes the election and all that. How many pro-Hilary folks would go the way of McCain if he chose a woman? Then they could vote for change even as they voted for what hey felt comfortable with, you know?

I'm not sure that it works as well in reverse: with the presidential nominee who's been stumping for "change" and then him bringing in he Old Guard Dude to lend him gravitas. Remember, this wasn't the configuration when George W. added Cheney to his ticket. He was up against Gore and Lieberman, who were basically of the same generation and experience level. Adding Cheney made Bush "safe" to vote for, and people wanted to have a beer with him already, and Bush was never running on "I'm going to be a historical agent of change" rhetoric.

Don't get me wrong: I'll be voting for Obama in November. I'm just skeptical about how it's all going to turn out, with the summer of moving to the center and the choice of Biden as the veep candidate. I'm hoping to become energized by the convention. I do love the conventions. I'd love to be energized and inspired.

I suppose the thing is, though, and this is why I voted for Clinton in my primary, I knew who she was and I knew that she was all about the political game as it has conventionally been played, and I respected the fact that she didn't pretend it was going to be anything other than politics as usual. I suppose I feel like Obama sucked in the left by pretending he was something different and that he's really just more of the same. He's a politician. He's done nothing but prove that throughout this summer and finally with this choice of running mate. He's going to do whatever it takes to get elected. Ultimately, this is better than if he wouldn't (because he wouldn't get elected if he wasn't willing to do that) but he pretended that he wasn't that guy, to get the left behind him. And however much I'm excited to get my free Obama-Biden sticker from, that pisses me off. I mean, dude, why pretend to be about change when you're about the status quo? Why pretend you're the candidate of change when you're the candidate of more of the same? Sure, he's young (though he's about the same age as Bill Clinton was when he ran in 1992), but so what? Young doesn't necessarily mean progressive or pro-choice or for-the-working-person. Saying a whole bunch of stuff about "change" doesn't necessarily mean shit.

Here's the thing. When Bill Clinton ran in 1992, it was the first presidential election that I was eligible to vote for. And he chose a running-mate who was a Washington insider in choosing Gore, but Gore was of Clinton's generation. And Gore was all about the environment and stuff, and well, it really did feel like a changing of the guard. But - and I feel like this is an important but - Clinton didn't pretend that he was above politics. He just asserted that he would be a different voice in Washington politics, which may have been pretense to some extent, but I found that less offensive than the pretense of "I'm a whole new person that you've never seen before," which has been Obama's thing. When Clinton ran, it was the first election where we didn't have WWII veterans running for president, and it was a big freaking deal. Dude, "Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow"! Fleetwood Mac, people! And it felt like they chose Fleetwood Mac for their theme song because they actually were fans! This was huge! Whatever we all came to think of Clinton later, or what we think about him now, or the problems that we had with Gore at the time because of Tipper's whole PMRC thing, the point is, they were about fresh blood in ways that were really important in 1992. (God, I feel ancient writing this. Insert some "these kids today!" and "I'll take that ball if it lands in my yard one more time!" sentiments here.)

Whatever "the Clintons" are or were, I did feel like we weren't rooked by them. Bill Clinton always advertised himself as a centrist, and Hilary Clinton never pretended that she was not about the political game. And whether I've always loved them (I haven't), I did always feel like they were who they were. Obama? I still don't feel like I know entirely what he's about, other than that he's about being president of the United States. I don't have a clear sense of his history, and I don't have a clear sense of much other than the fact that he's a good public speaker. And I'm in the audience of people - those highly educated bleeding-heart liberals - who is supposed to be most welcoming of him. Maybe it's because I'm not of the right class of origin, that I'm suspicious. Maybe it's just my personality. The point is, he has things to prove to me. He has to prove to me that he actually cares about the issues that I care about (the economy, women's issues, issues for working-class voters that cross those other two categories and exceed them). He has to prove to me that he's interested in more than getting the job. Obama supporters I know have pretty much told me I'm supposed to go read his books (though I've already read one, because a student wrote a paper on it) in order to "know" him. That's bullshit, people. Middle America isn't going to go read his books, and even if they were, it's ridiculous to think it's on them to do so. This is a job interview people. When you interview for a tenure-track job, you don't tell people to read your whole dissertation: you tell them the 2-minute or 5-minute version of it, in a way that is clear and concise and engaging and convincing. If he can't do that, what exactly can he do?

I'm sorry this is turning out to be an anti-Obama rant. I don't mean it to be. I actually really do support the democratic ticket. I just feel like my suspicions, that it was always going to be politics as usual, are totally confirmed. And it makes me angry. I wanted so much for that not to be true, when Obama got the nomination. At least if Clinton would have been nominated, I wouldn't have had this disappointment. It would have been politics as usual, but I wouldn't have any hopes that it would have been anything other than that.

They Just Look Right Together

Ok, so I watched a lot of news today. What with the announcement of Biden as Obama's running mate and all. And at some point in the pre-appearance-of-the-two-annointed-ones-together stuff, Chris Matthews (I know, I know) made a big deal about how the two of them look good together. You know, they're both these tall, fit men, with lots of energy, blah blah blah. He and the pundits then considered how McCain's cause will look if he chooses Romney, who towers over him, and who wouldn't "look as good" standing next to him.

I paraphrase, but yes, this went on for about five minutes. And then they noted that Obama and Biden would be appearing with their wives, and they noted their attractiveness and stylishness.

And all I could think was, if this is the logic, a woman will never "look good" on a presidential ticket, because, you know, she'd either look like a battle-ax or she'd look like a wife. She'd always be too short or too tall or too old or too young or just, you know, too female to look right.

I wasn't surprised by the Biden choice. He's a career politician, a Washington insider, and his strengths compliment Obama's weaknesses. Any politician would have chosen Biden. So really all this choice did for me was to confirm that Obama is a politician's politician. Not a bad thing, and I'll vote for him and hope he wins, but it did feel an awful lot like business - or politics - as usual.

Thinking about the Tenure Process

So this year marks my final year on the tenure-track in this job.

It feels weird writing that, like I should be crossing my fingers and knocking on wood or something, but that doesn't make sense, because whatever happens, that is a true statement: it is my last year, the year that I submit my materials once and for all and in which the tenure decision will be made.

I've been thinking a good amount about what tenure actually "means" to me, and thinking about the process that I've experienced at this institution, and I feel like it's worth writing about, as I read others' posts about beginning their time on the tenure track this year. What I'll write is in no way a one-size-fits-all "this is what the tenure process is everywhere" manifesto. It's just about what I've experienced, which looks little like what I'd imagined I'd experience when I got this job in 2003. And so here it goes.

1. The Tenure Process at My University

Ok, so I'm at a regional comprehensive four-year institution, the primary focus of which is teaching undergrads, though grad programs have been expanding very quickly throughout my time here (cha-ching!). We're a university in transition: in the past five years, we've become more (though not outrageously) research-oriented, and there have been a great many junior hires, so the faculty population (which had included many faculty members who were here when the university had only just opened its doors) looks much different than it did for about the past 30 years. Teaching undergrads is still number one, but teaching alone is no longer the only thing, if that makes sense. When I look at my tenure materials, the distribution of activities is roughly 50% teaching stuff, 30-35% research, and 15-20% service. Some people flip the research and service distribution. When I was hired, it was indicated to me (how is that for passive construction?) that I didn't need to do any more publications and I'd still safely get tenure. Basically, 2 conferences a year was supposed to be enough to prove I was active. People have gotten tenure here in my department as recently as 7 years ago without any publications. Now, the party line (within my department) is that one publication in a peer-reviewed journal would make for a fine tenure bid, so long as everything else was up to scratch (though other departments at my institution stipulate that it should be more, and they actually list journals that would qualify). My institution does value "non-traditional" publications, like scholarship on teaching, textbooks, creative works, and publication related to public engagement.

In your first year, in my department, you pick a mentor who is tenured who serves as your point person for any questions you might have, and who agrees to look at your book to give you advice if you'd like it at any point in your probationary period. Also, most of my tenured colleagues were very generous and more than happy to share their own books and narratives to give models for how to do this thing.

The review process goes like this. You put a binder together every single year - even a pathetic one during your first year, just to get the thing going. Each piece of "evidence" goes in a plastic sleeve, and you include narratives to explain your material - including one over-arching narrative and potentially individual narratives about teaching, research, and service. Each year the binder goes all the way up the chain of command: it is reviewed by the department's tenure, promotion, and reappointment committee, then by the department chair, then by the dean, then by the provost, and then it is approved by the board of regents. (Note: we have no university-wide tenure committee.) If there is concern about your materials during the probationary period, you can get a "conditional" reappointment, with advice about what you need to do in the next year in order to get the condition removed. Each year, once the books have passed out of the department, the department's p&t chair meets with you to give you feedback on your binder. Annoyingly, in my experience, this feedback has had more to do with the binder itself than about my performance in the three areas. That said, perhaps this has been my experience because my performance is fine and so they just don't have performance-related comments for me.

The process in your final tenure year looks just like it does in the preceding 5 times through the process, except I suspect that you don't have to have the annoying conversation after about using bullet points in your narratives and using a highlighter to make certain documentation "stand out" for upper administration.

Benefits of the process at my university: NO SURPRISES. Also that you really do feel mentored toward tenure - like your colleagues and even the upper administration, in looking at the books each year, really are investing in you getting tenure at the end of the clock.

Drawbacks of the process at my university: Needing to do that fucking binder. Every fucking year. And the emphasis on one's scrap-booking talents.

2. Why This Process Didn't Match Up with What I'd Imagined

Well, the main reason, I think, is because the only things I'd heard about how tenure works came from my mentors at high-powered research universities, and in particular my mentors at grad institution. I'd imagined tenure was much more about publishing and perishing than it is here, and I'd imagined that my scholarly stature would be the big thing that determined whether I could achieve tenure. I'd imagined that I'd only put shit together twice - for a 3rd-year review and then in the tenure year - and I'd imagined that the process would be much more mysterious. I'd imagined that the whole department would vote on whether I should get tenure. I'd imagined I'd need outside letters to go in my final tenure application. I thought this was "how it worked" everywhere. It isn't. I also imagined I'd feel much more angst surrounding the tenure process, and that my time on the tenure-track would be typified by lots of anxiety about meeting requirements. This hasn't been the case. I also thought that my colleagues would be much more mysterious about what they expected from me. Not so, not at this institution in my department. (I specify my department because word on the street is that things are less clear in other departments.) I suppose the point of all of this is that the tenure process is highly specific to institutional and departmental culture. And most advice that you will get from anyplace outside of your institution and department will relate to how the process works at research universities, or at elite SLACs. If you don't work at one of the above, that advice will likely not be of much use to you. The tenure process is quirky, and it depends on where you actually work. Knowing that from the outset I think is useful.

3. How I've Approached the Job While on the Tenure-Track

So, I noted that I've not felt much (if any) anxiety about meeting the benchmarks for tenure here. That said, I think the "probationary period" does influence how we approach the job, or at least it has for me. I think I was less likely to put down roots here because I didn't feel secure that this was where I'd remain. I think that I continued to feel pressure to go on the market to move up the academic food chain because that was what I was "supposed" to do, even though I really do feel like this institution really fits my ambitions and what I want in the profession. I think I sometimes felt like I was producing more than my peers, and so I was "better" than this place, with its less rigorous tenure requirements. I think in some ways I wanted the process to be more mysterious and less friendly, in order for it to "mean" something more than it feels like it "means" here. So those are the negatives.

But the positives are that I really have felt like I could just sort of do my thing and that it would be fine. Sure, I published more (far more) than I "needed" to do for tenure, but not because I felt like there was a gun to my head. I just sort of puttered along and followed ideas and opportunities as they came to me. I taught classes that filled gaps in the curriculum and that dovetailed with my research interests. Especially after I got the hang of things a bit more, I did service that interested me and that I felt was rewarding. (At first I didn't really understand that there's more than enough service to go around, and so I did a lot of service that I resented. Not that I'm completely un-resentful when it comes to service these days, but it's not necessarily the dominant thing I feel when I think about the service that I do.) I've really felt a lot of intellectual and professional freedom in this job, even without tenure.

4. What "Tenure" Means?
But so if I already feel like I have intellectual and professional freedom, what is the point of tenure? Hmmm. This is the question I've been pondering lately. Well, there's not having to do the Dreaded Binder each year. That's truly awesome. But that's probably not the only benefit, or if it is, that will be a bit of a let-down, no? As I think about it, I think that the biggest change that I'll feel will have to do with being able to feel like I can fully invest in this place - both the community itself and the institution. Instead of being so focused on my accomplishments and how I'm perceived, I'll be able to take a greater role in shaping the future of the university, in speaking up in ways that are less diplomatic, in really participating in the life of this place rather than in worrying about whether I'm getting mine, so to speak. I also feel like I'll have some greater freedom to do things that don't easily fit into one or the other of the tenure categories. I think I've been pretty traditional in my approach to what I've written, for example, just because I didn't want there to be any question about whether stuff "counted." Now, it won't matter so much if what I do "counts" or it can "count" in ways that aren't so quantifiable or assessable. I don't need to feel obligated to do two conferences each year just because I'm "supposed" to. I don't need to feel like I need to develop new courses unless I really want to do so. I don't need to feel like I have to say yes to serving on committees that don't interest me. That's not to say that I plan to become dead weight. I don't. I don't think it's really in me to become that. But it is to say that there's a way to be active in the life of one's institution and department that still leaves space for one's personal needs and desires, and I've sometimes sacrificed for the job in certain ways while on the tenure track that I do not plan to do once tenured. And I think it's the prospect of the security of tenure that allows me to think about my whole life in a more complete way. I'll be done being an apprentice. I'll be done proving myself in certain ways. And that's maybe the most exciting thing about finally going up.

5. After This Year, What?
Which leaves the question of whether I can imagine going on the market again, and if I don't do that what that means. Well, here's the thing. I sort of am who I am in the profession at this point. I'm not going to get hired at the associate level anyplace with a higher research profile, and yet I'm too far along on the tenure-track to really be considered for assistant-level, entry-level jobs, and I'm not interested in making a lateral move and starting over someplace new with the same constraints that this place has. What's the point? I make enough money. No, I'll never be rich, but there are things that matter more in life than money. I'm fairly close to family, and it's not worth moving farther from them than I am now. Would I perhaps want to be even closer to them? Perhaps, but the likelihood of managing that is probably pretty small. I like my colleagues. I like my life. No, I think I'm dug in. I think this is where I plan to stay.

And I think I don't care if that seems like that's giving up, which I'll admit it does seem that way to me sometimes. I think that I internalized enough of the competitiveness of this profession to sometimes feel like I'm "settling." But you know, maybe it'll be nice to settle here. Maybe that's a reward, ultimately, rather than some kind of curse. I think about all of the people who long to settle in someplace, but who go from adjunct gig to adjunct gig, or VAP to VAP, and I wonder why I think "settling" is something negative. I mean, dude, "settling," after these years of not feeling like I could really settle, sounds kind of awesome.

So those are my thoughts about how the tenure process has felt to me throughout and about what I think I might feel once this year of waiting is over (knocking on wood that all goes well, of course). Of course, I may feel nothing of the kind. Or I may be denied tenure, in which case I'll totally lose my shit. But I don't think that's in the cards (crossing fingers, etc.). At any rate, we shall see.