Friday, February 29, 2008

RBOC: Grumpy Friday Edition

What is this? Grumpy? On a Friday? With my most excellent schedule? Something must be terribly, terribly wrong.
  • I've got two words for you. One is "retreat." The other rhymes with "shmassessment." Three. Hours. Long.
  • Did I mention they have predicted a hideous wintry mix weather-wise for the exact moment at which I am to drive to campus?
  • I'm actually much less grumpy (or, really, why mince words, bitchy) than I was yesterday. I only realized just now as I put on the coffee that the fact that I'd had only one sad cup of campus coffee ("weak" barely describes it) yesterday, which probably meant by the time I was crankily whining to everyone I know in the evening that I was probably jonesing for the caffeine and in some kind of withdrawal. I can tell you that I certainly was pissy, certainly was sleepy, and certainly was quite inconsolable.
  • Except I was able to be consoled. Thank goodness for PBS. On one station they regaled me with ballroom dancing (not that Dancing with the Stars nonsense, but rather the "real" kind, as I like to think of it) and on the other I watched the last third of the Firth/Ehle Pride and Prejudice, which really made me happy as could be.
  • I almost considered calling up the Muse to tell him I was feeling better than I had been when he'd talked to me earlier, but then I decided that this would make for an annoying conversation ultimately and so did not. Incidentally, the Muse thought my post yesterday was funny, but he was perplexed that more people didn't comment on it. Clearly my theory about him wanting attention was not too far off the mark :)
  • What else? Well, this week was one heck of a busy week, and I'm glad it's (nearly) over. I'm doing WAY too much, but I'm actually feeling really energized about all of the stuff that I'm doing, except for I'm kind of over it by the time I hit Thursday night/Friday most weeks. I think this means that I'm working hard and that hard work requires some rest and rejuvenation :)
  • Are you wondering what I'm doing that's so exhausting? 1) developing the curriculum for a program not my own, including pushing some crap through the curricular process, 2) developing an online course, which may end up involving me partnering with a librarian to get actual library instruction for online courses as opposed to lame tutorials, along with many other things that I'd not anticipated when I agreed to do this, 3) teaching my two classes (remember: I've got release time because of the admin stuff I'm doing), 4) kissing up to the people in the dean's office (which isn't really work, but has been a pastime this semeser, 5) advising a student publication, 6) advising actual students, 7) putting shit together for that campuswide award that is going to mean hours of work in order to be considered, 8) working on a journal article, 9) working on a panel with a couple of colleagues whom I don't really know that is going to - if it goes well and is accepted - be very sexy indeed, but this means that I've got to figure out what I'd like to say AND how it fits in with what the others are doing (Luckily I have until mid-April to do this), 10) putting together an application for a course release for the fall, because why not give it a try to get it?, 11) having special moments with a certain VERY sweet Man-Kitty and thinking about getting a Baby-Kitty for him to play with still (though I've been kind of lazy on the logistics of that), 12) advising BES, which now means that I need to reread a novel that I've not read since.... I think my freshmen year of college, 13) and who the heck knows what else. So yes, I'm very, very busy. And I'm actually probably forgetting stuff I'm doing in the list I'm providing. There is also news about BFF that I can't tell, but that is going to change my life in a pretty big way (because, indeed, it's all about me). That said, congratulate BFF for the thing I can't reveal :)
  • Did I mention that I'm waiting on just ONE hold-out permission for my book to be published? I would like it very much if you would send permission vibes into the universe for me, for this is causing some low-level stress that never leaves me.
  • In more positive news, I'm actually pretty wicked-excited about getting tenure next year (barring any glitches, naturally, superstitiously). And I'm very excited about my 2-year teaching schedule that is like a gift from the gods (at least in theory... we'll see how the whole thing goes).
  • And in other positive news, I'm also pretty excited about some developments in my department that I am not at liberty to discuss. Big changes are afoot for next year - changes that I really didn't think would happen before I got tenure given the molasses-like slowness of how things work at institutions.
Yes. I do believe that this is all of my things on this Friday. I will be giving an update on the resolutions for the new year this weekend. Some have fallen by the wayside, while others are going like gangbusters. I know that such updates are boring, but it seems that the "falling by the wayside" has a little something to do with not being accountable and with being easily distracted, so I think a blog post about them will help. And finally, wow is my coffee better than the lame-o campus coffee I drank yesterday. Note to self: coffee is crucial to my wellbeing and I should not allow myself to sleep in thinking that campus coffee can do the job.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ah, The Muse

Once upon a time, a very inspiring Man-Kitty

named a certain individual The Interloper. Now, perhaps the Man-Kitty's interpretation was unfair. Clearly, the Man-Kitty had a vendetta against this person, as evidenced by the fact that he cut him, deeply, with his razor-like claws, a cut that (from all reports) left a scar (Crazy doesn't really believe there's a scar, incidentally, but rather that The Interloper is a bit of a drama queen). At any rate. The point here is that a certain individual, who certain well-respected kitty-cats might name The Interloper, appears to want to inspire Crazy. To serve as a sort of muse.

Now, this is hilarious on so many levels. I mean, first, imagine the figure of the muse that has been perpetuated as a figure of the creative imagination for, lo, these many centuries. The flowing robes. The lute. The fact that this figure is often conflated with an ideal object of desire. The fact that this figure is, without fail, construed as female. Now, imagining a feminized Interloper, an Interloper in full drag, is a fun enterprise indeed. But let's get beyond that initial image. The whole "muse" thing is funny even without this.

For there is something supremely funny to Crazy in conceiving of a person who wants to tell her what might be fun to blog about, or what material might serve as fodder for this humble blog. I think that this enterprise, on the part of the Interloper, has to do with his wanting to support her hobby of blogging. I mean, I really do think that he makes these suggestions generously, in an attempt to contribute to the enterprise that is Reassigned Time. It could also have to do with what he'd choose to blog about if he had "a blog of his own." (Is this like "a room of one's own?" It must be.) But you know what I think is more likely than either of those first two options? I think that he truly wants me to blog about him. Indeed, it's been a long time since I've done so. Ok, well, maybe it hasn't been quite that long. But nonetheless, I've not talked about him much in recent weeks, and I think that this makes him sad. Petulant, a bit.

And so recently, there've been quite a few suggestions for things that I might post about. Of course, I never post about them. Not to be a jerk or anything, but because I post whatever occurs to me, and I don't quite think of "topics" in the way that I think he supposes that I do. But so yes, I've got a person who's campaigning to be the Muse of Crazy. And this is, well, in one respect, delightful. I mean, who wouldn't want to have a muse of their own (not unlike "a room of one's own" either.) That said, I do believe that the Interloper should probably realize that if I'm not writing about him that it probably is a good thing. It means I'm not turning into him an imaginary figure that I've constructed, and that I view him as a "real" person (whatever the hell that is). Here's the thing with me and The Muse (or, as the Man-Kitty would call him, the Interloper, or as I've called him in the past, FB or Fake Boyfriend): he really is one of my peeps, and I only write about the peeps in passing, if at all. Moreover, if I were writing about him more, or about his topics that he suggests, well, it would mean that I wouldn't think he's awesome in and of himself, and I do. Ah, The Muse, The Interloper, that FB. Dude, he should realize that if I don't write about him, or write about what he suggests, it means I actually care about him. It's all so obvious.

PLEASE, Professor, Would You Do All the Thinking for Me?

So, I got an email that left me feeling a bit irritable. You know the capitalized "please" in the title? Yeah, that's actually a direct quote from the email. I shouldn't write in a more specific way about this than that, as really, I think the student is just wigging out as a result of some insecurity, and I'll handle it, and it will be fine.

However. Here are just a few small suggestions that students might follow, should they be so inclined, when dealing with professors:

  1. Do not email a professor a note in which you use the capital letters of shouting in which you imply that the professor has not offered you the information that you need to begin work on an assignment when a) she gave you a very detailed assignment sheet a month ago, b) that assignment sheet includes a model for the format for each part of the assignment (although no, it's not identical to the topic that students will pursue in this class and no it's not a complete version of the assignment), and c) when the assignment isn't due for a full month and there is a day on the syllabus next week when the professor has scheduled time in class for talking about it and what it leads up to.
  2. Do not expect a professor to do your thinking for you. Dude, the whole point is that you learn how to have ideas of your own.
  3. Do not forget that a professor is more likely to be responsive if you actually have done some thinking about an assignment before you badger the professor for help. In other words, if you say, "I've looked at the assignment sheet and I have questions about x, y, and z" that's going to get a much more favorable response than, "Can you tell me more about this assignment for which I've already got a three page assignment sheet? Can you spend class time on it even though you've already scheduled class time to talk about this and that's listed on the syllabus?"
  4. Prioritize people. Don't stress out about something that isn't due for a month and that's worth only a tiny portion of your grade and that leads up to something else that is due at the end of the semester when you have a midterm to worry about.
I'm sure I could come up with more, but again, it's just that this student is having a bout of insecurity. I get that, and I am sympathetic to it. And I'm going to try to talk the student off the ledge, and it will be ok, ultimately. But jeez oh man. I mean, maybe the point of some assignments is to challenge students and to get them out of their comfort zones, and maybe there is value in struggling independently for a little bit with an assignment to see what one comes up with before wigging out in the direction of the professor. You know, it's times like these when I long for the pre-lapserian past in which there was no such thing as email.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Rewards of Teaching/Mentoring

So, the last post that I did about teaching was about the more irritating aspects of evaluation at my institution, and I did want to balance it with a post about the very real rewards and pleasures of the teaching that I get to do at this institution.

I think I've said on this blog before that teaching wasn't the initial thing that attracted me to this profession. I believed when I was 19, and I still believe it today, that if the thing you most aspire to do is teach, and if don't have a real and sustained passion for research, getting a PhD is probably a stupid course of action. A PhD is a research degree, first and foremost, and you've got to be most passionate about that part of things in order to make it through grad school alive. I'm sure some would disagree with me, but I do believe that. Now, it is possible through the course of graduate school and the beginning years of one's career to come to care a great deal about teaching, and sometimes to like it better than one's research. But if the initial drive to do scholarship isn't there, well, that's going to cause problems.

But so as I envisioned pursuing graduate school as an undergraduate, I didn't think much about the teaching aspect of the profession that I wanted to enter. I'd figured I'd be ok at it, as I really do like to be the center of attention, and I like instructing people about how they should do things and showing them how to do things. But I didn't think much about what made a "good teacher," and I decided whether a teacher was good or not on a pretty intuitive level. Also, what made a good teacher for me was very much dependent upon whether the teacher inspired me to think about stuff I hadn't thought about before and that I wanted to spend time thinking about, and whether they allowed me to pursue the scholarly paths that were interesting to me.

I start with this stuff - how I thought about teaching when I was a student - because I think it's important to note that now that I am an experienced teacher, I realize that "good teaching" involves a lot more than I'd originally thought, and that what makes "good teaching" for the majority of my students can tend to be different from what made "good teaching" for me. Most students - even ones in the major - don't care a whole lot about the scholarly side of things. They like to read, and they like thinking about literature, sure, but they don't necessarily enjoy writing papers, nor do they enjoy reading criticism. They don't have the same motivations that I had as a student, nor do they necessarily need the same things that I as a student needed. And so I've grown as a teacher and changed my practices to respond to their motivations and needs, while (I hope) still leaving room for the other stuff, too.

But every now and again, I encounter students who more closely resemble the student that Crazy was as an undergraduate. And I have to say that there is something really great about getting to be the kind of professor that I most appreciated as a student for those students. Never have I experienced this more intensely than this semester, as I've begun to work closely with Bright, Enthusiastic Student (BES). BES is not one of my "frequent fliers." I'd never taught her in a class before this semester, and I've lucked into working with her because she had an idea for her thesis that closely paralleled my own research interests. A colleague of mine introduced her to me, and that's how this whole thing began.

Now, let me say this: this is pretty much exactly how I was hooked up with my own thesis adviser as an undergrad. And the parallels don't end there. BES's initial idea for her thesis (though it has since developed into something much more awesome) was not unlike the idea that I pursued in my undergrad thesis, and BES's style as a student is also very much like what mine was. From our first meeting, I felt on a very visceral level that I was being given the opportunity to play out my own thesis experience from the other side. Now, that's dangerous in some ways, to feel that. BES is *not* a mini-me. I don't want her to be. And my agenda is not to transform her into that. But there is a serendipity in the fact that this situation has fallen into my lap. I feel as if I've come full circle, finally become the professor that I imagined being when I was 19 years old. And that, I've got to say, is really, really awesome.

But so here is the deal. I've fallen into a situation in which I've been chosen to mentor and to teach a student who is incredibly motivated (and not by a desire to please me so much as by the material), ridiculously smart (I think smarter than I was at that age), and tremendously conscientious. Moreover, our styles of how to work with and relate to one another are really in sync, and so things that I suggest to her to facilitate the process are working without any dissonance or painful effort. She takes small suggestions that I make and she runs with them, doing better than I'd ever hoped she might. And even when there's a bump in the process (which is only just starting, and surely there will be more bumps), it becomes a "teaching moment" from which I think we both emerge feeling like even the "bump" is a positive thing. She's comfortable with being directed by me, and I'm comfortable giving her direction. It feels... natural. It feels like how this sort of project is "supposed" to work, on a gut level.

What's been most interesting to me so far about teaching in such a situation is that it's allowed me to think more clearly about my general practices as a teacher, and that really I'm not so interested in being the center of attention or in "making" the student produce work that fits into a certain paradigm. What I enjoy most is facilitating: giving students the tools to achieve what they want to achieve. I enjoy seeing what they produce with my advice, and I enjoy being surprised by what they come up with. It's easy to overlook the pleasure of that when one is teaching a full class, in which my aims are often mediated by the varying levels of preparedness of my students and in my emphasis on achieving certain "learning outcomes" across the board. The reality of a typical class that I teach is that those things take precedence over the "happy surprises" that make teaching so rewarding for me. It's not that the "happy surprises" don't happen in a regular class, but they are not necessarily my main focus. How I feel about this project with BES is like the "happy surprises" are the main point - the only point.

Part of that is structural, but part of that is about the kind of student she is and how we relate on the level of personality. I've never had the opportunity to explore this aspect of things in a sustained way with a student during my years teaching. Still, there are (exciting) challenges to this experience that I'd not really anticipated in a conscious way. What are those challenges?
  • I find myself being very careful about exerting too much influence over BES's project and ideas. This is not to say that I'm not giving her direction and feedback, but rather that I don't want this to be "my" thesis - at all. And so I find myself being very conscious about how I frame my responses, so that not only are the ideas all hers but also so that she feels like the ideas are all hers. This played out in a recent meeting, in which I perceived a connection rattling around in the background behind what she was saying. Rather than just making the connection for her, I carefully chose a more interrogatory way of responding so that she got to have the "light bulb moment" of discovering the connection for herself. Sure, this took longer than if I had just made the connection for her, but it was such an awesome moment! Her whole face lit up - she actually made me high five her! - and I suspect my face lit up at exactly the same moment that hers did. It was so excellent to see *her* having the idea, as opposed to imposing it upon her. And also the idea? Brilliant.
  • I also find myself being weirdly reluctant to give too much positive reinforcement to ideas of hers that are close to my own interests. This is something I'm going to have to figure out in the coming months, as I think that perhaps it's dumb and potentially counterproductive. It's just I really want her to be her *own* scholar and not some sort of spawn of my own research agenda. One of the best things about my PhD program (which had its flaws, don't get me wrong) is that it is a program that really produces graduates that really are *independent thinkers*. So, for example, while there are common threads that run between my research and my adviser's, at a superficial glance, nobody would think of me as his academic child, I don't think. We don't work on the same authors, we don't publish in the same specific areas. Sure, we are theoretically in sync, but we also have major points of disagreement on some things. And he really facilitated me in my disagreements with him, as opposed to overlaying his own positions or interests onto my work. He let my dissertation be *mine*. I want BES's thesis to be *hers*, and that's so far proving to be a more difficult balance to strike than I'd thought it would be, in part because the ideas of hers about which I'm most enthusiastic are very close to ones that I myself explore in my research, and so on the one hand I think they must be great ideas (natch) but I don't want to dismiss other ideas that might be equally as fruitful that she might pursue, nor do I want to be too wholly positive about ideas that are close to my own that, if I get my head out of my own asshole, might not be as interesting as I like to think they are.
  • I'm also finding that it can be difficult to be critical of a student's work when that student is so totally into it. I don't want to hurt her feelings or dampen her enthusiasm. Even though I know that sometimes one's feelings need to be hurt in order to produce the best work. So, for example, my feedback on her fuller proposal was quite critical, and I found myself feeling badly about it, and I had a hard time striking a balance between giving her the criticism that she needed and being supportive. It turned out fine - when we met she admitted that she knew what my major concerns were going to be when she turned the thing in, and she was grateful for the attentive feedback that I gave - but I did have the unusual experience of feeling a bit guilty for not just loving everything she was thinking. So that's something I'll be working on over the course of this project: becoming more confident that I can support her even as I challenge her, and more confident that this is necessary and not "mean" or "unsupportive." One thing that helped to build my confidence in this area already was her revision of her ideas based on my feedback. She responded to my questions so carefully and with such incredible insight. And this is going to be a much better piece of work for me having responded honestly than it would have been if I hadn't.
So yes, there are challenges, but they are such cool challenges! And yes, taking on this project means more work for me, but it doesn't at all feel like work: it feels like this culminating experience for me, even as the project itself is a culminating experience for the student's undergrad career. And even as I worry for her - for grad school is her ultimate plan, and we all know what a risky proposition that is - I look forward to being able to mentor her beyond this project and into the early stages of her progress into academia. If this project goes the way that I think it will, I suspect that I will do for her what my undergrad adviser did for me: I'll try to get her to submit a proposal for her first conference (perhaps put a panel together with her?) and show her the ropes and introduce her to some people. I might have the opportunity to become a real professional mentor to her - not only a teacher/mentor. That's how excited I am about the work that she's doing. And hell, isn't one of the benefits of having achieved what I've done in the profession - that I'll be in the position to do that? That I'll be in a position to give somebody a leg up, just as others gave me one?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Shopping! Hurrah! Tra La!

Well. After last night's triumphant completion of my revision, I awakened this morning to feel as if I really deserved a wee little shopping spree. See, with the whole financial resolutions of the new year, I've not been spending money except, really, at the grocery store. But I felt that having been so good about that, and having been so good about eating well, and having been so good about work and well, just everything that I should treat myself.

First, and most importantly, I've been wanting new perfume for AGES. And this week I finally encountered the only perfume that would do:
Chloé EDP/1.7oz
The bottle! It is beautiful! The scent! It is like a flower that you want to eat! (Which is pretty much my criteria for all of the perfume I wear... it has to make me feel like I want to eat myself because I smell so good. I'm not sure what that says about me.) And to make it even more awesome, they gave me the Beauty Week Goody Bag because my purchase was very close to the $100 that one technically was supposed to spend in order to receive it! And it is awesome! And inside it is a wee bottle that looks just like the big one of the Chloe perfume, only it's like the size that you might be able to put in Barbie's dream house on her vanity or something (although for Barbie it would be a bit large, but we all know what a consumerist show-off Barbie is). And there's also a sample Laura Mercier lipgloss that is AWESOME as well as other creams and a Fekkai hair mask and it's just awesome. But so yes, now you all can know what Crazy will smell like this spring, should you be motivated enough to find out.

But my shopping was not over with this purchase, for I also made my way to Macy's. I had decided before I left the house that I would allow myself to spend $100 in addition to what I spent on the perfume. Well. I did not spend that much, but rather only spent 55 bucks. The one item that I purchased for which I can't find a picture (and I'm too lazy to take a picture of it) is a DKNY top that was originally $60 that I got for under 10 dollars. I also bought two pairs of shoes. One is very practical (and super-duper comfortable and good quality):
BORN Women's Scotti

Original price? $85. Price I paid? $17.63. But then, well, I decided that I needed something a little more... well, a little more crazy. Fun. Some kind of footwear that would make me feel like I was very fashionable indeed. And that wish, my friend, led me to these:

I am in love with them. I might want to marry them. And know what makes me love them even more? Original price: $99. Price I paid? $25 bucks.

I love buying presents for myself! I love it! And now I need to eat something, for I am famished. (I almost took myself out to lunch, but then I decided I'd rather eat what I already had at home. But then now I'm too lazy to eat any of it. It's quite pathetic.)

Ok, So It's Technically Saturday, Not Friday....

But I feel I've met my deadline since I have yet to sleep. Thus, it's still Friday night. For real.

Old Habits Die Hard

And this is why I typically don't do much writing during the semester.

Remember how I had to finish those revisions today? Well, I knew that I could get them in by tomorrow AM and it would be cool. And so I hemmed, and I hawed, and I bitched, and I moaned.... until around 4:30. And then I took a break. And then I worked a little, and then I took a couple of phone calls. Let's just say that I started working in earnest around 10 PM. And let's just say that I could have predicted this, because my absolute most "inspired" time for writing is at night - not in the day. I can make it happen when absolutely necessary, but, well, with the knowledge that it wasn't necessary? I couldn't force the inspiration, but rather had to wait for it to visit itself upon me.

I'm as bad as a student who pulls an all-nighter. And I should probably admit that I was a student who pulled many all-nighters. Even though it's wrong. Even though it's not how you're "supposed" to write. But guess what, folks? I've still got a few more hours to go, and I intend to go the distance. (That said, have also had a glass of wine. Perhaps not wise, but it made the prospect of writing seem like a fun activity as opposed to an arduous one.)

But the worst is over - that brand new intro I needed? DONE. Now I've just got three things to address and I'm DONE. Wish me luck.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pulling Teeth

People often get the impression that I am very productive and efficient. While this is probably not *entirely* untrue, I thought you all might enjoy hearing about what, thus far, has been one of the most stupid and unproductive days in the world. I should note that I really can't afford for it to be this.

Back story: Once upon a time in 2004 I gave a conference paper. Ultimately, I submitted that conference paper to be considered for publication (vague possibility of conference proceedings), and then it was decided that people were putting together a collection, so I needed to expand the conference paper into a full-length article, and then I got notes back and then I addressed those, and then I think there was another round of revisions (though it's very fuzzy now) and then the collection was sent off to the publisher that had expressed interest, and then the readers' reports came back and there were Things To Be Addressed and I got the essay back yet again (although it's so old now I don't even know what the original point was) and so I did what I thought were the appropriate revisions and then I got it back again and I've had it on the back burner since October. Well, the jig is up my friends. I've promised I'll get it to the editor today. And so here's been my day thus far:

7:00 AM: Wake up, but decide that really I should just relocate to have a wee early morning nap on the couch.
9:30: Ah! I am feeling so well rested. I should probably look at blogs and drink some coffee. No need to get to work immediately. Indeed, it's always preferable to ease into the day.
10:30: Really should get to work.... Ooh! email from High School BFF and she has a snow day! I think I'll just call her on the phone!
11:30: Tell HSBFF that I should really get off the phone and do work.... and then we talk for a half hour more.
12:00: Maybe I need to play some Civilization on the computer. It will help me to think strategically and to collect my thoughts.
12:45: I really don't think that I can hunker down for the revisions until I load the dishwasher.
1:00: And I did buy stuff for a crock pot meal. If I prepare it and put it on now then that will actually save me time because I won't need to think about food later, and I won't have to interrupt myself if I'm in the zone.
The Present Time: And probably I should do a blog post before I settle down to work....

What in God's name is *wrong* with me? Ok, really going to try to do some work now :)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Woman, Teacher, Professor - In That Order

I had posted something last night about teaching, and this morning I took it down. I didn't take it down because of any reaction that the post got, or, rather, I took it down only because of how I myself reacted to reading it after a good night's sleep. It wasn't so much a retraction of what I'd written, the taking it down, but rather that I wanted some more time to sit with my thoughts and to process what I've been thinking about. I wanted - although this is uncharacteristic for me - to revise something I'd written on the blog.

I wanted to revise because I hated the tone of what I'd written. My anger about what I was talking about was too present. Now, that's not to say that some anger here isn't justified, but I felt like the anger got in the way of what I was trying to say. One of the difficulties of discussing how gender (or race, class, sexuality, whatever) intersects with one's identity as a professor is that it's too easy to construct oneself as a victim, and that ultimately, I think, gets in the way of really addressing the very real issues that need to be addressed. The point isn't that I'm victimized by my students or by my colleagues or by anybody. The point is to acknowledge certain ways in which the process for evaluating an assistant professor's performance is broken (at my institution, but this isn't just a local issue). The point is, when one is at an institution that "values teaching," or when one is in a position where teaching determines one employability (I'm thinking of adjuncting here), the criteria for evaluation are stacked in ways that can ultimately penalize very good teachers. This isn't to say that those who do well under this system are all bad teachers, but it is to acknowledge that the ways in which "good teaching" is quantified are not free of bias.

Things are, ultimately, simpler in judging what makes "good research," I think. You know how many articles are required, you know what the bar is for tenure, you know what kind of work particular journals or presses typically publish, and you go from there. Moreover, you're mentored about this throughout your education (more or less, depending, but still there is some mentorship) and professional activities are oriented around research (conferences). Teaching, on the other hand, receives much less attention, even if one gets "teaching experience" in graduate school. And exchange of ideas about teaching, while it does happen, tends to be oriented around conversations about grading and assignments or how to teach particular subject matter, which is great, but which doesn't really address how one "proves" that one is a "good" teacher, which is crucial if one is at a teaching-oriented institution or if one's job is solely to teach.

Now, the evaluation of teaching at my institution pretty much consists of higher-ups looking at student evaluations - both the numbers and the comments. While it is true that you also submit syllabi and course materials for review and that these are taken into consideration, what appears to carry the most weight, in terms of performance review (for raises) and in terms of achieving tenure, are student evaluations. And these evaluations are not, by any stretch of the imagination, an "objective" measure of what makes a good teacher. The statistics that result from do make them appear to be that, but they are not.

And this was where my anger and frustration last night came from. I am a dedicated teacher, and I think that I am a good teacher. Teaching is the part of my job on which I spend the most time, and I care about trying to be inventive as a teacher and about changing my teaching practices to meet student needs. I have worked very hard at this throughout my probationary period at this job. And, overall, the results of that hard work have been positive. I've received a teaching award from students in the major, and I've never had truly abysmal evaluations. But. I face two difficulties with evaluations. First, the statistical averages are consistently skewed by a small minority of students who take out their frustration at being challenged in my courses by giving all low rankings. In small classes (which thankfully, I have at my university) one bad apple does indeed spoil the whole bushel. So the numbers are not truly reflective of what I achieve - or what students as a whole believe happens - in many of my courses. Second, even if the numbers are good, the comments that students leave often cancel those good numbers out. And the comments are without fail responses based on my failure to conform to their ideas of how a woman should behave. The comments are not about what they learn, or fail to learn, nor are they about what I actually do to facilitate that learning. Rather, they are comments about "manner." You'd think that this wouldn't be a big deal. Except - and this is a big except - the practice at my university is only to include wholly positive evaluations in the sample that one provides to substantiate that he or she is a good teacher. So while a student might have given me all 5's, that evaluation is useless to me if the student also says, "She acts like she knows more than the students do," or "she assigns too much reading." (Might I note that I think that both of those actually reflect positively on my teaching, as indeed, I probably *should* know more than the students, and if I hid that light under a bushel, they'd say that I wasn't qualified to teach them, and assigning a lot of reading in an English course seems like the right thing to do. That said, I was cautioned against including evaluations with such comments in my materials.) Similarly, there are weird inconsistencies in evaluations, so, for example, my rating as an instructor might just be average or below average ("She grades too hard") but the evaluation for the course might be through the roof ("I've never learned more in a class at this university"), and, you guessed it, that's an evaluation that I shouldn't include. And finally, the students who give the best comments often give lower numbers because they actually take the ranking seriously and don't see why somebody should get a 5 for a question like, "instructor followed course policies." Those evaluations, then, also do less good.

Typically, at my university, these inconsistencies and the tendency for evaluation numbers to skew lower do not happen across the board to all instructors. They happen to female instructors. They happen to instructors of color (the few that there are). Comparing notes with male colleagues bears this out anecdotally, though it is something that is then typically brushed aside ("Oh, we know this happens! Don't worry about it! We take that into account!"). Looking at the salary differentials between male and female professors bears this out in more substantive ways, for merit pay is almost solely dependent on one's performance in teaching, and if that performance is almost solely dependent on one's evaluation numbers, well, that has a significant effect on salary over time. So this is a real problem - not one that is insignificant.

And personally it is frustrating because it doesn't matter what I do or what I change and it still happens. Wear dressy clothes? If I'm not "nurturing" how I dress doesn't mean a hill of beans. Be more explicit about how the work of the course fits together and about the objectives of each assignment? Been there, done that, and my assignments and syllabi get longer and longer each semester, and yet, the same comments come up. Attempt to come up with new and innovative assignments that students will enjoy more while still meeting the same learning objectives? Yep, I can check that off the list, and for my pains I get the comment that New Kid and Rokeya noted about "not really teaching" the class.

To be fair, there are many students who think that I'm the bomb. Who commend me for treating students like adults, and who say that I've been the most influential teacher they've had at this institution, and who say that they've never learned more in a course. But those don't cancel out the responses from students for whom I'm a Woman first and a Teacher second. And it doesn't help that I'm young.

All of this then contributes to how I attempt to negotiate my fuller identity as an assistant professor at this university, as one has to simultaneously attempt to fly under the radar ("oh, my book contract is no big deal!"; "Sure, I teach difficult stuff and I get students to do stuff you'd never dreamed they could do, but I'm just a masochist!") while at the same time one tries to stand out ("Here are all of my accomplishments! I'm really great! Give me tenure! Give me a course release!"). This is a difficult balancing act, and sometimes I do just want to say fuck it and stop with the bullshit and shout from the rooftops that I'm doing great stuff in all areas and if people are threatened by that - be they students or colleagues or whatever - that that's their problem. BUT. I can't do that before tenure. It would be self-destructive.

What I'd like is to be seen as an assistant professor first, a teacher second, and a woman third. What I'd like is for there to be a way that teaching is evaluated and valued that is less about how well one fits into the mold of "sage on the stage" (sorry, I don't have the jacket with elbow patches and the pipe required for that role) and more about what students actually learn in one's courses (imagine that). I'd like a structure for student evaluations that is more about what actually happens in a course rather than about how students "feel" in relation to me. I'd like for students to appreciate it just a tiny bit that I'm tough on them rather than deciding I'm a rude bitch because I am.

And it's all of the above that makes people check out at a certain point, stop trying and stop caring. And as much as I get frustrated and angry, it's not really in me to check out. So the only thing for it, I suppose, is to get tenure and to start the revolution.

In Which I Take Down Last Night's Post about Teaching

Because I hated its tone of complaint. I'll write a real post about teaching and gender at some point in which I can describe in a less bitchy way what my experience has been, but for now I'm taking what I wrote last night down because while I suppose it's fine, it's not really how I want to talk about this issue.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ah, Plagiarism

I'm not certain what I think about this, but it does seem interesting in light of the discussion that went on about plagiarism last week. I wonder how many "hang the plagiarist!" folks are Obama supporters, and, if any of them are/were, I wonder what impact this news makes on them.

What's interesting about the coverage of the plagiarism accusations is the way that people are going after Clinton's camp for bringing up the issue (which I anticipated would be the case when I first heard the news, as how weak is it to claim that your opponent is a copy-cat, whether or not it's true? And, indeed, even I think it's kind of weak), and often as support for this they are talking about how all candidates borrow language and ideas and it's part of the process, blah blah blah, or, as John R. Bohrer writes over at the Huffington Post:

"If you want to be high-minded about it, you could say looking at what survives one campaign to go on to the next is a study of what rhetoric works and what rhetoric doesn't.

Clearly, Patrick's worked, and Obama's seems to be doing the same. Otherwise they wouldn't be going after it in so many different ways.

In fact, I'd like to put Hillary Clinton's 2008 attacks on Obama's rhetoric next to that of Patrick's 2006 Republican opponent, Kerry Healey.

Might find some "plagiarism" there, too."

Here's the thing: I still haven't decided about whether I support Obama or Clinton. I am so lucky as to have months before I could vote for either. I will say this, though: I'm less bothered by the fact that Obama borrowed language than by his response to being caught out about it. I'm not pleased about the "no big deal" vibe I got from his comments to the NY Times. At the very least he should be embarrassed. I mean, that's the least I expect from my students, and they're not running for president. And the "I wrote two books" defense doesn't mean crap to me, as I don't let a student off the hook if he or she wrote their first paper but submitted a plagiarized one for the second. Just because you *could* have written it doesn't mean you *did*. Duh. But so yeah, his response is to the allegations is weak.

You know, I feel like *I'm* embarrassed for both Obama and Clinton. And that sucks because I know I'm going to end up voting for one or the other of them.

ETA: I was just cruising around on the youtube video of the two speeches side by side, and some poor soul argued that if you talk to your friend about it first, and your friend consents to you using his ideas/language, that it's not plagiarism. Here's a tip to any students who might believe that: consent means nothing without proper citation. That defense will land you in big trouble with the Academic Integrity Police, and could get you expelled from school.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Because I Know You're Wondering how the Beans and Rice Turned Out

Well, folks, I think we've got a winner. Here is what I did, and as you see, it was "inspired" by the Cooking Light recipe, but I changed some things, in part influenced by A.'s recipe that we discussed last night. I didn't note the prep time, though it couldn't have been more than a half hour from when I drained the soaked beans to when everything was simmering on the stove unattended, and it probably was more like 20 minutes. So here it goes:

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 green pepper
  • 2 medium onions (I used yellow because I had them on hand, but I suppose red would be nice, too)
  • 4 ribs of celery (outer ones, if you were using the smaller inner ribs you might want more)
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, minced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 pkg chicken sausage (jalapeño) - 4 links
  • 1 1/2 (or so - I just used up the rice that I had around the house) cups of long-grain brown rice (uncooked)
  • 1 cup black beans (dry, soaked overnight)
  • 2 cups kidney beans (dry, soaked overnight)
  • 14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes, undrained.
  • 1 box of low sodium chicken broth (32 oz.)
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  1. sort/rinse beans the night before and soak overnight. In the morning rinse the beans and sort again. (I'm sure you could use canned beans, but I had these in the house.)
  2. chop all the veggies. I tend to like a rougher more "rustic" chop (i.e., I don't have much patience for tiny chopping) but I did mince the garlic and the jalapeño, which I recommend.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a large pot, and then dump in the veggies. I had it on medium to medium-high heat. Cook the veggies until tender.
  4. While the veggies are cooking, measure the spices into a small bowl and mix. Also, measure out the rice, and chop the sausage into small pieces. (I quartered the sausage lengthwise and then chopped).
  5. When the veggies are ready, dump the spices in and stir until the veggies are coated. Cook for 30 secs. to a minute.
  6. Dump in the rice. Stir until coated with veggies/oil/spice mixture. Cook for about a minute.
  7. Stir in the beans, sausage, tomatoes, and chicken broth.
  8. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat so that it will be at a simmer while covered.
  9. Let it cook for about an hour and a half (less or more depending) or until the liquid is absorbed.
And here is what I see as I look into the pot in which I cooked this delicious concoction. It's spicy, but not "I'm crying as I eat the food that I made" spicy. Obviously you can play around with the proportions of the spices, leave some out, or add in other spices per your taste. It came out to approximately 10 servings.

Ah, Sunday....

Well, it is a gloomy Sunday morning here in these parts, what with no sunshine (though, on the bright side, it is pretty warm).

Funny thing: when my mom calls me on weekend mornings, we ritualistically discuss the weather. The conversation generally includes some version of the following:

"It's a gray and gloomy day this morning, cloudy."
"Oh, here we've got 'sunshine eye to eye!'"

Now, you may be wondering about what this "sunshine eye to eye" business is all about. My stepdad is from the Middle East, right? Well, this phrase is his invention, which comes out of his modified version of the words to Kajagoogoo's song "Too Shy." Other similar phrases that have entered into our family's lexicon: "Around the world and aye-aye-aye" (answer to how my mother chooses to get from point A to point B in any situation, which comes from the song "All Around the World," Barry White, Lisa Stansfield, Puff Daddy....) and "On the road to Tennessee" (where Stepdad will say he's going if you ever ask him, and I think this comes from the '90s hit "Tennessee" by Arrested Development). Without fail, all of these things amuse me, and my parents, though I am willing to acknowledge that my family and I may be total weirdos.

In other news, I've finished with primary source stuff for my article (rereading, reading, note-taking) and so now it's time to get the critical reading done and the theory ironed out. I'm on the pace that I'd originally laid out for myself - my goal is to be to the drafting stage of things by the end of the month, to use spring break to get a solid nearly final draft, and then to deal with editing in the last two weeks of the month. In exciting news, my library has purchased Refworks, which means that turning everything into Chicago Style will not be the tragedy in my life that it has been on all previous projects (we in the humanities are slow with the technological inventions that ease our lives, and I never got around to getting EndNote). All in all I'm feeling very positive about the whole thing. I feel like it's worth mentioning that had you told me when I was in grad school that I'd be feeling so at ease with this task I would have told you that you were crazy. When I think about the angst that accompanied each seminar paper, each chapter of the dissertation, and my utter lack of confidence that I'd ever be able to get a coherent whole together in polished writing.... well, let's just say that at least for me it's true that the more of this stuff you do the easier it gets. Now, obviously the article may be rejected, but it's nice to feel like I'm capable of producing something that may not be rejected in this beginning stage, and to feel pretty calm about the whole project. I do anticipate, however, that there will be some angsty times ahead, as it's in my personality to stress as things get further along, so it's not like I'm this totally well adjusted scholar or anything - just that there's less up front anxiety than there used to be.

What else? Well, I did my taxes, and I'm ever more pleased about my financial resolutions because I really need to get myself into a position to buy something because while I'm still getting a refund this year, that refund sucks. Ah well, at least I'm still getting a teensy bit of money back. And at least in theory, I'll be able to begin saving for a down payment on something in 2009.

So, on the agenda for today is that I'm going to do some cleaning up around the homestead, and I'm going to make a version of this recipe (though I'm doing some tweaking because I'm just not fussy enough to follow the instructions on Cooking Light recipes and because I'm going to replace the chicken with jalepeno chicken sausage and because I'm going to use more beans.... depending on how it goes I'll post the recipe I actually come up with later). I should also do a writing-related task that I've had on the back burner for months, sort laundry, and do some prep for my classes. All in all, a busy day ahead, but I'm kind of into all of the things that I have on the agenda. The thing I also should do is go to the gym. I *think* I've finally kicked the Evil Cold that Would Not End (though still a bit sniffly sometimes), and I need to recommit to working out. This week I didn't lose or gain any weight, and I think reintegrating working out will get me back on the losing train. I also need to get back to keeping a food diary because I fell off with that, and I think it was good for me to do it. I think I may need to start another one that I keep at the office, though, so that I don't need to remember what I've eaten to record when I go home. I can't be relied upon to carry the thing with me everywhere, and that's where I think I fell out of the habit of doing it.

So, this has been a hodgepodge of a post, hasn't it been? Ah well, not every post can have an actual point, especially on a gloomy and gray Sunday morning :)

Friday, February 15, 2008

RBOC: TGIF edition!

  • I don't know how to write about what happened at NIU. So I'm not going to. There just aren't words.
  • And so instead I shall write about frivolous things. Like how this schedule of mine this semester? It totally doesn't get old! I am so happy every single Friday! And sure, the mid-week is grueling, but the Friday where I don't need to be anyplace on a regular basis? This more than makes up for the grueling Tuesday through Thursday.
  • This afternoon I went to get my hair cut, and that was an excellent treat. I love my hair person. She's just so great. And so CHEAP. Today's visit, which included a cut and an eyebrow wax, cost a whopping $30 bucks (plus tip). And I was quite pleased because she supports my desire to end up with the Klum haircut, and she congratulated me on how well I've dealt with having the heavy bangs, for apparently not all people do so well with them. This made me feel weirdly proud of myself.
  • I'm eating some yummy tuna casserole (whole wheat noodles, many veggies, low fat). I'm really loving the healthy eating thing I've been doing in the '08. And apparently my ass is loving it, too, for this has been the week of wearing pants that I've not been able to fit into in approximately a year.
  • In other news, I'm thinking I may do some work on the article for a few hours. Where this motivation comes from I really don't know.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thoughts on Plagiarism

Dean Dad did a post about a faculty member who plagiarized a statement of teaching philosophy, and since I read the post I keep thinking not only about it but also about the comments in the thread. I'm not thinking so much about plagiarism itself - plagiarism is bad, etc. - but more about the violent reaction that many have against it and what causes the violence of that reaction.

Now, the simple answer that many would give is that they react so vehemently to the idea (or fact) of plagiarism because it constitutes a gross violation of trust, honesty, etc., and that it is outrageous that anyone would ever represent the ideas or words of another as his/her own, under any circumstances. Thus, the anger is a righteous anger. Many would then go on to say that there is no doubt as to what constitutes plagiarism and that those who commit the crime of plagiarism should be given the smack-down without hesitation. Further, some would say that there is no need for a policy to be in place, because everybody knows that this is against the rules.

It's these simple answers that have me thinking. First, something in me resists the impulse to anger that so often characterizes academic discussions about plagiarism, as if each instance of plagiarism constitutes a personal affront to individual academics. They characterize the actions of the plagiarist as actions motivated by contempt or arrogance, as malicious. Now, I have a good track record of catching plagiarists (student plagiarists). I take plagiarism seriously. And yet, I don't think a single one of them was plagiarizing to hurt my feelings or to offend me. I also don't think that they really thought much about the possibility of being caught, so it's not that they arrogantly assumed that they'd get away with it. Rather, plagiarists are desperate. Yep, every single one of them, even high-falutin' ones like Doris Kearns Goodwin, is motivated by desperation.

Now, why is the plagiarist desperate? Why does the plagiarist despair? Here are some reasons:
  • The plagiarist thinks that he or she cannot do the work and succeed under his or her own steam.
  • The plagiarist is under some sort of a time crunch, whether because of procrastination or something outside of his/her control, and so thinks that the only way to get the work done is to "borrow" from somebody else.
  • The plagiarist doesn't really believe in the "assignment" and doesn't really believe that anybody will check for plagiarism or necessarily read what they've written with any attention (and I think this is the one that is probably the biggest issue with non-student plagiarists).
I note these "reasons" for plagiarism not to excuse it, but rather to suggest that perhaps it's not just about the person who plagiarizes being an asshole. Because I don't really think that's the case. I don't think plagiarism is about somebody waging an attack against people who stand on some moral higher ground. About a person trying to get away with something. I think it's about insecurity in some cases, a lack of faith in others, and sometimes it's about a combination of the two. Again, that doesn't excuse it. It's still wrong. But I think that taking the personal affront out of the equation helps to deal with it in a way that's more efficient and ultimately in a way that does more good.

With students, it makes sense to take plagiarism seriously because it impresses upon them the fact that their own, original ideas *matter.* It's about showing them that even if they fear that they're not up to the task (whether because of ability or because of procrastination or because of a feeling that they are insignificant) that they shouldn't let that fear rule them because what's important is the process and not the product. If a student plagiarizes, it doesn't show me anything about them, and the whole point of submitting assignments is for them to show themselves to me. I'd rather get a crappy assignment than a plagiarized one, mainly because I can't teach them anything if they're not showing me where they are with the material. I can teach a student who turns in something that sucks: I can't teach a student who turns in something that somebody else wrote. Moreover, most stuff that plagiarists choose to plagiarize sucks worse than what a student might do on his/her own. It just "sounds better."

Now, in the case that Dean Dad's correspondent described, this wasn't about a student, but about a faculty member, who plagiarized his (for the sake of convenience, imagine a his/her throughout) statement of teaching philosophy in his materials for reappointment (I get the sense that this was either for a 3rd year review or that the institution requires yearly submission of materials for probationary faculty). Is this different from an instance of a student plagiarizing? Are the reasons different, and is the situation even more clear-cut? These are the questions I've been asking myself all day long, as I've watched the comments to Dean Dad's post.

First of all, I think we're kidding ourselves if we think that everybody knows what constitutes plagiarism in every situation or that we regard all of our activities through that lens. Take a look at yourselves for a moment. Do you cite every idea that you present in a lecture that came from someplace other than your own brain? Every single one? Let's say that you're teaching an introductory course and they need some historical background. Do you tell them where you got that historical background from? Every time? Probably not. If you use an assignment that a colleague developed, do you cite him/her on the assignment sheet? Really? Some people may, but I think that this is a gray area for many of us. I mean, if something's not your idea you should cite it, and I'd argue that most of us follow this rule in scholarship, but in teaching? Really? Every single time?

What the case that Dean Dad's correspondent describes does is it ups the ante. What about when we talk about our teaching, in the context of something like promotion and tenure materials? Should that be original to us, or is it ok to borrow from others, or from the internet? Is this boilerplate stuff that we can freely borrow, or is it unique to us?

My impulse is that it should be unique to us. We should be talking specifically about our practices and our reasons for instituting those practices. I believe this in part because I'm at a teaching-intensive university, and you can't use boilerplate to discuss something that is intrinsic to what you do. And this was my impulse when I criticized some job applications when I was on a search committee, when two applicants from the same grad program used identical language in their job letters to talk about their teaching. My colleagues were more forgiving than I was in evaluating these candidates, citing that job letters included "boilerplate" language. I believed that it showed neither had really thought about his or her teaching in a deep way, but rather that they were talking the talk while not demonstrating that they could walk the walk. (I should note that while these candidates made it to first-round interviews, neither one of these candidates ultimately made the final cut for campus visits.)

This, my friends, is why it's helpful to have a policy, though. If it is clearly stated what is expected - that one talk specifically about his own teaching and how that relates to his broader theories about what teaching is supposed to achieve - then it makes sense to penalize people who don't meet that requirement. If, however, the message that is sent is that a) nobody will evaluate what is written very closely and b) that what is expected is "boilerplate" that fits a particular model and that is very general, that encourages plagiarism. It's just like giving a paper topic to students that is "conventional" and easily plagiarizable. And in that case, the "assignment" is the problem, as well as the system for evaluating it. Does that mean that the plagiarist is not culpable for his/her infraction? No. But to pretend that it's just "obvious" what should be done is also wrong.

It's not that the plagiarist is too simple-minded to understand the rules: it's that the implicit rules indicate one thing and the morality of those who enforce the rules indicates another. A strong statement about what is required eliminates this conflict. It also eliminates the personal investment in any conflict that might arise, as there is something to govern the response of the department or of the promotion and tenure committee. For me, the fact of the matter is this: if you don't give a good assignment, and if the person doing the assignment doesn't take the assignment seriously and believe that it matters, then you've got to interrogate the assignment itself and the person or people who are evaluating it. This doesn't excuse a breach of academic integrity, but it also doesn't authorize the evaluators to congratulate themselves for giving the smack-down.

Now, in the case that Dean Dad's correspondent described, do I think that the plagiarizer should have been renewed without reservation? Absolutely not. Do I think that they should have been renewed with reservations? Maybe, or maybe they should have given a terminal one-year contract and told to hit the road. It's not about feeling sorry for the person, though, if I express any leniency about this. It's about the fact that at the end of the day I really do believe that we've got to hold ourselves accountable for setting up situations in which plagiarism occurs. If we lay out the rules clearly, and the consequences clearly, and it still occurs? Obviously it's on the plagiarist. If we don't do those things? It's on us as well as on them. And we have no moral higher ground on which to stand. We are complicit.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Silliness

It certainly has been a long time since I've put quiz results up! And so in honor of V-day....

Your Candy Heart Says "Cutie Pie"

You always seem to have a hot date, even though you never try to meet anyone.

A total charmer, you have a natural appeal that keeps you in high demand.

Your ideal Valentine's Day date: multiple dates with multiple people

Your flirting style: 100% natural

What turns you off: serious relationship talks

Why you're hot: you're totally addicting

Oof. And the Day is Done.

So, of the ten items in my last post I accomplished.... 1, 3, 5, 6, 8,9,10. In other words, I did one hell of a lot of stuff, even if not everything on the list. And now I'm eating some dinner, in spite of the fact that I feel too simultaneously exhausted and keyed up to be hungry. I was on campus for 10 hours today. And there was no fooling around - I worked solidly all that time. Tomorrow promises to be another long day, mostly filled with admin stuff. Let me just state it for the record right now that I'm not doing crap on Friday if I can help it.

In other news, the M-K hates long days like this, and he's been meowing forlornly since my return home. I really feel that he needs a companion of the kitten variety. Ah, perhaps in Spring, the Season of Kittens, his need for companionship will be satisfied.

I want to write something else about something... but I've got nothing. Too pooped to come up with things about which to write. Wish me luck that I'll get my mojo back before tomorrow morning, as the day begins with what promises to be a difficult hour-ish of teaching (squeezing coverage of a whole novel into one class period to make up for weather-related cancellation). And so I say it again: oof.

Only Wednesday?

You'd think I'd not be complaining about that, what with my sweet schedule and all, but as this Wednesday, which promises to be a long one, stretches before me, I'm wishing it were already Thursday. On the agenda for today:

  1. Advising appointment with student.
  2. Expand lecture notes created yesterday for tomorrow.... indeed, I need to lecture because we're now behind, and in order to catch up, I've got to take the bull by the horns and get us caught up. Discussion is great for many things, but it is not great for catching up a class that is behind.
  3. Prep for my other class, including some lecture (I know, what's with the lecturing? But this class meets but once a week and if I don't lecture some they flag) as well as activity, discussion questions, etc.
  4. Grade worksheets.
  5. Mail permissions-related correspondence, as well as complete one of the documents that must be mailed.
  6. Research for article, and complete all necessary ILL requests.
  7. Correspondence with my two independent study students.
  8. Correspondence with my thesis advisee (for indeed, according to my calculations I should be getting some version of a draft today.
  9. Faculty meeting.
  10. Teach.
And the sick thing is that there are other things I could do in addition to these - this is just the bare minimum of what probably *must* happen today (though in theory I could blow off #s 2 and 6). So if you're wondering why I am not blogging in ways that are substantive, or even interesting, well, there you are.

In other news, you know how I had the whole financial resolution for 2008? Turns out that I can get some cash for developing that online course - fairly substantial cash, though obviously less after taxes. It's kind of amazing to me how opportunities for money keep appearing now that I've finally resolved to get myself out of the credit card debt. It's like a miracle of some kind.

So I suppose that's all for now. Now I must go pack lunch and dinner (ridiculous) and pack my schoolbag and get out of here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Grading, Done!

Well, the grading is done and the snow has begun. So some thoughts on the grading.

All in all, I'm pleased with what the students did. One student just didn't get what was expected, but I have high hopes that with some coaching this student will do fine as this assignment is repeated throughout the semester. This is why I love this particular assignment. Each individual installment is worth but a tiny portion of the final grade (less than 5%) and so it means that I can give "real" grades with lots of feedback, and as the assignment repeats throughout the semester, the students can improve. If they do, sucking on the first one won't really hurt them at all in the final grade. So they get a sense of my "real" standard, but it doesn't really *hurt* their chances to do well. Also, it means I get to send a message to my stronger students when they turn in sloppy work (as some invariably do, because they forget that what they must do for me is more than they must do in some other contexts). Instead of grading relationally (as in, the stronger ones always get A's because they're so clearly stronger than the others coming in) I can push them harder, again, without it making a substantive difference in their final achievement in the course.

So, this is a small class. I gave a couple of A's, a bunch of B's, a few C's, and only two F's. In all, I'm very happy with the distribution for this first go-around. I'm also happy that they chose to write on different options, which I always think is a really good sign on an assignment like this. It means that they're *thinking* about what they'd like to write about, as opposed to just writing on what they think is "easiest."

The sorts of responses that I received varied a good bit, and there is room for some variation in the assignment, so that ended up being interesting. Some of them are stronger writers than others, and some are clearly far ahead of their classmates in terms of their initial ability to engage with the material. That said, I came away from this first round of grading in there feeling like the course is off to a very good start. Even the weaker ones are grappling with sophisticated questions, and the stronger ones, well, they are very, very strong. Now, I was apprehensive about this course at the outset, and I didn't know how successful I'd be in my context teaching this material, especially having talked with my colleagues who teach a similar course. Let's just say that in reading over the first assignment, I was very pleasantly surprised. Very.

In other news, I also recently graded the first work from my other class, and I had a very similar experience to the one that I outlined above, in which I was pleasantly surprised and also really... just proud of my students for engaging with stuff that's outside of their comfort zones. The more I teach at this institution, the more I admire the students whom I teach and the more that I feel proud to teach them. And the more evidence I see that I'm suited to the kind of teaching that I do. Sure, it's not easy, and sure, I get a good amount of resistance that comes in a variety of forms. But wow. I am just regularly amazed by what my students achieve when I give them the opportunities to do so. Maybe I shouldn't be so amazed, but I mean it in the most absolutely complimentary way possible.

Grading Break

In bullet form, as that will make it seem like I'm being brief :)
  • While grading, I'm watching the BAFTA Red Carpet coverage, and Daniel Radcliffe is like the size of an action figure. I mean, he is wee. Wee compared to Ryan Seacrest. I don't know *how* I feel about this.
  • My students are so great. I'm reading the first assignments from the class that I don't talk about in specific ways, and while some did better than others, all in all I'm entirely hopeful that a lot of what I'm saying and what they're reading is getting through to them. Hurrah! And they are totally making BRILLIANT points about how students respond to the sort of material that they're seeing (all but two for the first time). I wish I could quote them, but that would be inappropriate. But let me tell ya: love the insights of my students.
  • I'm sure you've been wondering about my hair. I mean, I think about it a lot, so you all must think about it from time to time. Well. Lo, months ago, I decided I was growing it out. This is not something I normally decide to do - I'm much too impatient for the growing out of hair under normal circumstances. I'm happy to report that I've finally decided what I'm growing it into. Lengthwise, it's close to this right now. What shall it become? Well. I do believe it shall be this when all is said and done. And indeed, I do believe I will be going just about that blond when summer comes. Ah, the Klum. She is a hair inspiration.
  • You know what motivated me to finish my grading tonight? That I'm hoping through the effects of Murphy's Law my finishing it will mean that there will be a snow day tomorrow. I'm so lame.
  • Hmmm. There was something else I felt like talking about, but I forget.... Oh YES. That's it. Am I the only person to have been surprised and saddened to realize during the Grammy's last night that Dan Fogelberg had died? How did I miss this news?
And now, the phone is ringing, so I am done :)

Off to the Office

A certain Man-Kitty looks forward to doing some light reading while I'm away. Apparently, he can't get a thing done when I'm hanging around.

In Which I Am a "Unique Snowflake"

Unbelievably, Joseph Kugelmass continues to have a problem with Dr. Crazy. See his most recent comment to this post of long ago. I'm honestly baffled. I left a comment in response (yet to be approved)*** but I'm hoping it puts an end to the matter, which for me was over two full weeks ago, although apparently my pseudonym remains central to the debate. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, is this exasperating.

For the record, looking back over the whole mess, I feel badly about how I initially chose to respond. I think I could have handled things more diplomatically, and I think that I could have kept my temper in check more than I did. And I'm sorry for the role that I played in blowing the whole thing entirely out of proportion. That said? There continues to be little to no self-reflection on the other side about why exactly I responded the way that I did. No acknowledgment that perhaps the tone of how I was addressed might have had something to do with how I responded. That is... disheartening.

I don't see myself (or Dr. Crazy) as a rebel, an eccentric, or a "unique snowflake." I see what I do in my work and what I project outward on this blog as pretty mundane, actually. I'm a teacher and scholar who's trying to negotiate the demands of the business of higher education (the job) with things that are intellectually, ethically, emotionally important to me. What I do, or what I discuss, isn't all that different from what many others do or think about. Through Dr. Crazy, I can give those things a more public voice than I'd otherwise be able to. While that's fun for me, and interesting, and while it's been nice to get to know people through the blog and while it's nice to have an audience for my ideas, I don't see it as particularly special. It's just one more thing that I do. Even if I did see myself as a rebel, eccentric, or unique snowflake, I wouldn't expect people to agree with me without reservation or to defend me on those grounds, which seems to be the implication of comments like this (let alone comments of the "unicorn gumdrop" variety).

And so I'm left to wonder why others seem to think that what I'm doing or thinking is so.... offensive? Controversial? Arrogant? Because the impression I've gotten from this situation, as well as from ones previous, is that what people are most angered by with Dr. Crazy is not actually anything I'm really writing about. It's more the *idea* of Dr. Crazy that incenses people than anything that's actually on this blog. It's the *way* that I choose to write, as opposed to the content of that writing. The voice that I hear coming through is always one that says something like, "How dare you? Who do you think you are?" Not so different from the voice that Lily Briscoe in Woolf's To the Lighthouse imagines saying "Women can't write, women can't paint," when it comes down to it. And that may not really be what's going on, but that's what I perceive as I approach the various conflicts that seem to arise as a result of Dr. Crazy.

But so Dr. Crazy, aka Unique Snowflake (my super-hero identity? nah, Dr. Crazy is more like a super-hero name. Perhaps this is more like my rapper name?), has much to accomplish today in the guise of her Clark Kent "regular person" identity, i.e., she must prep a novel to teach, work on some admin stuff, catch up on some email, do some stuff re: book permissions, and, finally, go in to the office to take care of some business. I know. I'm totally an eccentric and a rebel. It's almost shocking how I live my life on the margins, isn't it? What a polarizing figure I am, and everything. Later, I might do a post about all of the food in my freezer, and maybe post a picture of my cat, if there's time. But for now, more coffee, and then to work.

*** ETA: Originally Kugelmass deleted my comment because in his estimation it was unsubstantive and didn't contribute to the ongoing conversation, but then put it up because of this post. I just want to note that I did not do this post to force his hand into posting my comment, but rather to think about the situation more broadly, as well as to apologize for my role in the blow-up (which I do think I needed to do).

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In Which I Wonder Whether Perhaps Things That Are Good Do Come Easily

In my life, I've typically been one of those people who extols the virtues of hard work, claiming that without hard work achievements are not as sweet, blah blah blah. Now, I kind of believe this still, but I've also got a suspicion that perhaps the best things in life actually come really easily, and all it takes is for something to click into place and then the good things just sort of happen. (This is not to say that there is absolutely no effort on one's part, but rather that it doesn't feel like pulling teeth.)

So why am I thinking about this on this Sunday morning as the sun is rising pink in the sky (and is just gorgeous, incidentally)? Well, in part it goes back to a conversation I had with High School BFF last night, in which we were discussing how happy we've both been since the new year, and in part it relates to stepping on the scale today and realizing that even though exercise has been erratic at best because of the Evil Pestilence That Inhabits My Body and Which Prohibits Exercise, I have lost 4 more pounds. This puts me at a total 14 lb. loss since the new year, or an average of just over a couple of pounds a week, which is totally in the range of what it's healthy to lose (esp. given how much I should lose, and I do expect things to slow as I get closer to what doctors would call a healthy weight for me). Now, given the whole Evil Pestilence thing, I've not been in the gym every day or anything like that. Also, my Evil Pestilence has not caused a loss of appetite, so I've been eating like a champ, thanks very much. No, I've lost that weight pretty much as a result of watching what kinds of things I put into my body. And I'll tell you, it hasn't actually been hard.

It's taken effort, yes. It's taken a commitment on my part, yes. But it's been, well, easy. So what have I been doing?
  • Whenever I cook something, I take special care to make sure it's really superbly delicious. In other words, I have not eaten a single sad salad or Lean Cuisine since beginning on this path at the new year.
  • I have, even when I've faltered by going out to dinner or whatever, made sure to drink 48+ oz of water - not juice, not Crystal Light, just plain water - every single day, and I've almost entirely eliminated soda. (I have maybe 1-2 12-oz. Diet Cokes per week as opposed to 1-2 per day. It's kind of like I was little and my mom would let me have pop as a treat only on Friday night.) When you're drinking that much water, you just don't eat as much.
  • Every time I cook I make sure that what I make gives me multiple servings or that I can turn it into some other dish for multiple servings, so I'm only committed to cooking 2-3 major meals per week. (Because of this, I'm actually not allowed to cook anything this week because my freezer has reached critical mass and until I deplete some of its stores, it will not fit any new dishes.) It is not realistic to think that one will be in the mood to cook something every night of the week, and it's not realistic to think that one won't want things that are quick and easy now and again, so the trick has been to make sure I've got that covered from stuff I myself have made rather than to turn to the outside world when I don't feel like cooking.
  • I've made sure to have a range of healthy salty and sweet snacks around so that I'm not tempted when a) I'm at school, where they have vending machines and b) when I'm at the grocery store, where they have lots of delicious treats that are not part of the whole "healthy eating" thing.
  • Oh, and that reminds me: I do not enter the grocery store without a list, and I stick to the list.
  • I've limited (though not eliminated) alcohol. I've averaged about a bottle (or two) of wine per week.
And that's it, I think. And so I've gotten to enjoy cooking again, I'm eating yummy things, I have more energy (which I actually have come to enjoy), and it's not hard. And the weight is falling off, even though I don't feel deprived. And I'm not, like, weighing my food or anything or tallying up calories for everything I eat - just sticking to stuff that we all know from when we were kids is good for us and eating off smaller plates.

And then I look at my other areas of my life, and I realize all the good stuff there is happening pretty easily, too. Work? Easy. The minute I decided I was just backing off of work and allowing myself to focus on my whole self, I get asked to submit an article to a good journal and I get nominated for an award. All of a sudden work stuff just fell into place. Again, not that I didn't have to exert some effort to set things up for that, but it's not been a struggle. Saving money? Going like gangbusters! (In part because of the cooking for myself, honestly, because as expensive as the grocery store *seems* compared to what I used to spend there, I'm getting a ton more for my money in terms of number of meals and I'm not blowing money on eating out, nor am I letting food just rot in the fridge. Also, I suspect the decreased wine budget may have something to do with the wads of cash that seem to be left over, although I do sometimes think that the cheese budget offsets the savings from the wine budget....) The way things are feeling with various relationships, etc.? Totally easy! Like as soon as I decided not to push and push and push and just to accept things for what they are, all things became satisfactory. (This is not to say that all things became "normal" or "real" however.... just that I'm not a freaked out mess in the way that I was, say, last fall, and I'm pleased that things are the way they are.)

All of this is far to Zen for my normal way of thinking, but I'm coming to think that perhaps things that one has to push so hard for or struggle so hard to achieve actually suck and that they aren't really worth doing. Sort of like when one is involved with somebody romantically and it's always constant "working on the relationship" - dude, at a certain point, that means that the relationship just sucks - otherwise it wouldn't need so much work. What if that's true in all areas? And if it is, doesn't that take a lot of pressure off of us, because then we can say, "Hey, this just sucks and it's not worth all this energy, or it would be easier," and then we can move on to invest our energy and commitment in things that feel more organic instead of trying to fit our square selves into round holes or something? So this is my thinking on this Sunday morning.

Hee! I just realized that I probably should have titled this post "Easy Like Sunday Morning." Admission: this song is actually my favorite Lionel Ritchie song ever, and it has been since I was a tiny child.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

What Makes a Good Dissertation Director?

I've been watching the train wreck going on over at Anastasia's with horror and sympathy, and it's got me feeling... grateful... for my dissertation director. Now the point of this post is not to say, "Oh, Anastasia's got her situation all wrong! People who direct dissertations are great!" Rather, I suppose it's to offer a version of what *good* mentorship (though not without its snags and conflicts) looked like throughout my dissertation process. I feel like I might have done a post about this at some point, but I can't find it, so here it goes. And if this can be a service to somebody who's early enough in the process that it makes a difference, rock on. (Lots of times I know that what undergrads thinking of grad school and/or people early in the process see about grad school or the profession on blogs is pretty darned bleak, and so every now and again I think it's good to recount the positive along with some practical advice. This isn't to gloss over the bleak parts, but an attempt to present one story that is perhaps less bleak than what people see elsewhere.)

Now, before I can begin, I should note that I've not got a warm and fuzzy friendship sort of relationship with my diss director. I do think that he's grown to respect me, but we're in no way close. He wasn't the sort who organized panels with his grad students for conferences, and he's never come to hear me give a paper when he's been someplace where I've been giving one. We've never shared a meal together. We don't "keep in touch" other than the emails that I send him to update him on my activities. As far as I can tell, he's not terribly interested in me. I think he's happy I've done ok, but I am nowhere near the apple of his teaching eye (if anybody is). At least this is my perception.

I note that this is my perception because I think "perception" plays a big role in how we work with our chosen dissertation directors, and those perceptions can either enable or hinder the process of dissertating. So here's the thing: I knew that I would work well with somebody who wasn't terribly nurturing (in a "oh, this sentence you wrote is so lovely!" sort of a way) and in fact that I'd probably do better with a person who was a bit of a meanie (or whom I could construct as such, for actually, in real life, my diss director - Director from this point forward - is a lovely man). See, I don't do terribly well with a lot of warm and fuzzy stuff. Blame it on my Tough Love Variety of mother, blame it on my absent biological father, whatever. I'm sure we could psychoanalyze my choice of Director the live-long day. But the point is, I did have a good sense of what sort of personality would mesh with my work habits, which require a bit of feeling like I've got a really high standard that I must meet and a dash of deep guilt about not meeting my potential. How did I know that Director could produce this?

Well, I think I was certain when I received a seminar paper back from him with his comments, a paper on which I received an A but the comments for which made me cry. I'm a cry-baby and I suck with criticism. That said, his criticisms? They were *specific* and *extensive* and *right*. The comments were not all negative, but the negatives *stung* because they demonstrated that he saw through my attempts to dazzle and confuse. They hit where it hurt most, and yet were also constructive. To be honest, the constructive bits hurt most because I saw where I could have done so much better. Anybody who makes me feel all that with one page of typed comments? Yeah, that's a person for whom I can go above and beyond in the work that I do. And that was why I chose my field of specialty (I was wavering between 2 or 3 adjacent ones) and why I asked him to direct my dissertation.

Now, as you might imagine, Director has a strong personality. He is not the director for everyone. (Indeed, nearly everyone in my cohort couldn't believe that I had chosen him to direct me, for he's a bit terrifying with the brilliance and everything.) But I knew that I'd push myself for him. And I needed a director who would serve in that capacity. And Director did serve in that capacity (and indeed, continues to do so as a a figure that I now produce in my imagination) brilliantly.

Now, the course of my dissertation did not run entirely smoothly. For a full year Director was on sabbatical and half of that time was in Europe and not available to meet and barely available to read anything. (Actually, I can't remember whether he read anything during that period. I feel like he may not have done.) And then there was the full year that I was not in residence and we conducted all of our business but for one meeting long-distance - the last year of the dissertation, when I wrote 2/3 of it and when I revised the whole shebang three times. And before the second of the three revisions, we had a show-down in which he threatened to drop me as his advisee (though I believe that was a calculated thing on his part now, and it resulted in a tearful apology on my part and all was well). So I'm not saying that everything was all sunshine and roses. I don't think the dissertation process is generally that for most people. It's a grueling thing to undertake, and that means lots of stress and some conflict may come with the territory.

But, throughout all of it, I knew he wanted me to finish. I knew he wanted me not only to finish but also to do the best work of which I was capable. I trusted his judgment about my work, and the reason that I trusted that judgment was because he was such a careful reader of my work, even if he wasn't the most hands-on of presences throughout the process. And, in truth, I think he might have been as hands-off as he was because I work really well independently. (At one point I remember him saying to me that he didn't need to give me a schedule or put any more pressure on me because he knew I already put infinitely more pressure on myself. And it was true: I already had a schedule devised, and I was very... well, I was a bit of a nag with him about keeping me on task, if that makes any sense. So one thing that occurs to me now, years out of the process, is that his approach to me as an advisee may not have been solely about who he is as a person but about what he knew I needed from a dissertation director. Not the same thing. But at the time, I thought he was just a bit cruel :) I needed him to be a monster, and, well, he was one, whether by my invention or by his own inclination or perhaps a bit of both.)

But so, ok. So I finished. And with what I think was the best dissertation I could have written. And that dissertation was good enough for it to be translatable into a publishable book manuscript even with me on a 4/4 load. And so I'd say there had to have been some good mentorship for that to have happened. I also think that what good mentorship I got did have something to do with me and the fact that I knew what I needed from a mentor. So let's get on to the practical part of this post.

What did I bring to the table?

  1. I knew what kind of guidance I'd need from the primary person on my committee. I knew what sort of person I could do the best work for, and I chose that sort of person. I did not choose a person based on field alone, but rather thought about the choice of field and choice of director - and later choice of topic - as all of one piece. I think that really helped me.
  2. I'm very self-directed and self-motivated, and I chose a person to work with who would inspire those qualities in me, sometimes with positive reinforcement and sometimes with tactics that at the time seemed harsh but for which I am now grateful (especially as it's those moments that I remember when I read some reader's report that's less than kind, and I realize that I can handle that with ease).
  3. I was very direct throughout the process about what I needed. This would not have been possible, though, if I didn't feel comfortable with my director and how he'd respond to such directness.
What made Director great?
  1. From the beginning, he was incredibly clear about his expectations. He did not mince words. He didn't try to save my feelings. And sure, that wasn't always easy, but I always knew what I was supposed to be doing.
  2. He was very clear about how he was going to facilitate the process. He saw everything that I wrote first. He was in close contact with the other members of my committee, and when part of the whole was ready, he directed me to send it to them. I also get the impression that he then communicated with them about what kinds of comments they should give to the draft, for when I got comments, they were not in contradiction to his, but rather addressed things that he did not spend as much time on. So, for example, Director's comments were always global in nature - about the broad sweep of ideas and argument and the theory- second reader's comments were always rooted mostly in pragmatic concerns about writing as well as about sources that I should consult - and when the outside reader came in, those comments were directed toward "revisions for the book." This is not to say that there weren't tensions between sets of comments at times - there were - but at the same time, those tensions were not difficult to resolve, and it was always clear which comments carried the most weight.
  3. He was the director that I needed him to be. He played the heavy when necessary; he was kind when necessary. The point always, though, was to facilitate me getting the thing done and done well. It was never about him.
And so, no, the process of dissertating was not all rainbows and unicorns for me, but in the end, it made me a confident and competent scholar. Without a good director, I don't know that would have been my experience. And to some extent, I've got to admit that I was lucky that I was able to choose a good director, as it's not like anybody really gives one good advice about how to do that or what one should look for. I have a lot of friends who sort of ended up working with somebody based on what they felt like writing about, or who ended up working with somebody who was all glowy glowy about their work in seminars and then it didn't go so smoothly during the dissertation process, or who ended up getting stuck with advisors who didn't really want them and whom they didn't really want because their first picks took other jobs or who had too many students or whatever. So it's not like what I write about here is some sort of one-size-fits-all model for choosing a director, because what I outlined might not work for everybody, or even if it would, the best laid plans sometimes don't amount to a hill of beans. But it's worth talking about this stuff I think, if only to begin a conversation about what goes into making what is ultimately a really pivotal career decision.