Friday, October 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Job Applications from One Reading Them

In just a few short days, the postmark deadline for the search on which I am serving will have passed, and all of the applications will be in. I have been reading them as they come in so as not to collapse under the weight of the whole stack or to suffer from total application fatigue trying to do them all in one or two sittings. I think this has been wise on my part, as we already have close to 100. I'm guessing that we'll end somewhere in the 160-180 range.

Others before me have done tons of great posts giving advice to job seekers from the other side of the table, and people give the "other side of the table" advice all the time over in the job seeking forum at the Chronicle, so I don't aim here to do an advice-giving sort of post. Rather, I just want to make some general observations, which may or may not be useful to others.

  • I'm astonished by how strong a good 75 to 80 percent of the applications are. I mean, they are phenomenal. So good that there are a lot of people who we could easily interview but we won't because they don't match quite as perfectly to our wish list of preferences. Heck, there are a good number of people who probably will get cut even though they've got ALL the preferred things. That's how great of a pool we have from which to choose. For what is not a "dream job" by any stretch. (I mean, I like it here and all, but come on. We're just not that great.)
  • While it is true that we all must stretch a bit to fit into a job advertisement, if a department is advertising for, oh, a Shakespeare scholar, say, and your dissertation is on Kathy Acker, chances are very good that you have wasted your time in sending us your stuff, even if you did teach a Shakespeare class once.
  • The most compelling letters I'm reading actually speak directly to the ad that we wrote. And that is making the difference in my rankings between people with similar CVs. I'm not talking about massive amounts of research and tailoring, here. Just people making a point of highlighting their accomplishments that match what we're looking for in the ad. So, say the ad asks for a person who has teaching or research competency in baklava and you've developed and taught a course in baklava, as well as giving a conference presentation on baklava. It's worth mentioning that.
  • Teaching experience is an interesting and tricky thing to evaluate. I'm finding that I'm less impressed by the sheer volume of courses taught than I am by range within the areas you would teach were you hired here. For whatever that's worth.
  • I find I don't care whether people lead with teaching or with research in their letter. What I care about is the balance of the two sections. Two pages on research with only a brief paragraph on teaching, for this place with a 4/4 load, well, just isn't that compelling, even if your research sets the world on fire. Makes no difference whether you put the teaching up front or at the end, in that case.
  • While we are not a research-heavy institution, I (and my colleagues) really care about hiring somebody who will have a research agenda and who will be able to maintain it with this teaching load. One way to show that's possible is to prove that you've successfully balanced teaching and research already. The applications I find least impressive fall into two camps: the people who've had cushy fellowships and very little teaching throughout grad school and who yet have only like one lame publication, and the people who apply for our gig because they don't have time for research in their current one, and so haven't published or presented at conferences for like 10 years. To both of these groups, I'd like to say, did you not notice the blurb about teaching load and public outreach in our ad? Where exactly do you think you're applying? The fact is, you're going to have to find a way to produce some kind of publication(s) to get tenure here, and it's not going to be easy. If you haven't shown that you can do it in your current circumstances, why would I think you can do it in this job?
  • I'm really glad I'm serving on this search. I love that I get to help in selecting a colleague who will thrive here.
  • But wow I'm tired. If doing a job search is like its own job, so, too, is serving on a search committee.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Should Be Sleeping....

  • But I accidentally napped this evening, which was a mistake.
  • I have so much work to do that I can't stop my mind from racing, but I also can't motivate myself to do any of it.
  • Just as I was about to force myself to bed, a guy I graduated from high school with im'd me through facebook. He is too fancy for words. (Has this super-cool career, from which he is "taking time off" to write a novel, is like the coolest boy EVER.)
But I really should not be chatting. I really should be sleeping.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

About What Has Been (So Far) a Very Good Teaching Semester

I've been pretty silent about the subject of teaching lately basically because things in my various classes are running smoothly. I thought it might be worth it to do a post about what I think is working, as so often, when we post about teaching, we tend to focus on the problems and not on the successes. I think it's good that we have a space in which to think through the things that aren't going right in courses that we teach, and to get feedback and support from others, so this isn't about saying, "Oh, we should all be totally positive when we talk about teaching!" Not at all. Rather, it's just that I think it can be good to reflect on the positive when it's there to reflect upon.

So I'm teaching four courses this semester. Two courses are ones that count for general education credit (service courses), one course is for a program outside my discipline, an advanced writing course, which I teach online (basically a service course), and one course is a graduate seminar in my discipline (my first time teaching this course, or in this program, which is new).

So first, what are some common things that are working well that have absolutely nothing to do with me?

1. There is a great vibe in each of these courses. From the first day, the students have interacted very well together, and I have felt very relaxed in managing each of the courses. Ultimately, I really feel like I'm facilitating rather than demanding, which is how I like to feel in the front of the classroom.
2. The students are, for the most part, bright, engaged, and on board with the material - even if they don't love every single assignment.

I have absolutely nothing to do with the above, other than that I haven't done anything to fuck it up. Sometimes, you get lucky and the dynamics of a class just work. Sometimes, like this semester for me, you get really lucky and that is the case across all of your classes. This is a gift from the universe, and it's probably good to pay tribute to the Teaching Gods when this happens.

But what have I done, other than to show up and let the students do their thing, to make this good teaching semester? Because dude, I should be aware of these things so that I can do them some more!

1. In each of the classes, I was able to hit the pacing sweet spot, both in terms of amount of material assigned as well as the rhythm of the assignments (reading and writing). In one class, this involved changing out some texts with which I was bored and reorganizing the ordering of the readings. In the grad seminar, a brand new prep, it involved meticulous syllabus design, which included visions and revisions until I hit on a collection of required and recommended readings that fit together - dare I say it? - perfectly, both in terms of content and form. It occurs to me that part of the success I've achieved here has everything to do with the fact that I'm finally at the point where I really know our student body, and where I really know myself as an instructor. In the past, I've had fleeting and accidental success with this, but now I feel like I can really take credit for it.

2. This has been something that's been brewing for a while, but I've finally gotten to the point where I have confidence in having my students do a lot of small group activities, and I no longer feel like doing so is about slacking on my part. Now, when I do group stuff, I spend a lot of time prepping it, so it's not like it's just a way not to teach or to prep. Rather, it really is about getting students actively engaged. This is huge since two of my four courses meet only once a week for three hours. Keeping students doing lots of different focused things makes all of the difference in the world in keeping their attention for 3 hours. And also, they're learning by doing, which I really think is always more advantageous than me just spewing material at them.

3. I think I've really hit my stride in my abilities in facilitating class discussion. Especially in the gen ed classes, I'd say about 75% of students are actively participating and contributing in full class discussion, without me forcing them to do so. In part I think this relates to #2, but I think it also has to do with me being much better at leading them to the conclusions that I want them to reach, as opposed to me intervening before they get there on their own. I'm much more comfortable with silence, or with letting them take a little bit longer to get to where I'm leading them than I might have been in previous semesters. This has a lot to do with the fact that I'm teaching three of my four classes for the umpteenth time - experience has taught me that they do ultimately get there. I don't need to force them there.

4. Getting tenure has made all of the difference in my attitude. I hadn't expected this benefit, but it's made me much more relaxed in my teaching, in a good way. Not worrying about evaluations or about jumping through certain hoops has made all of the difference in the world and has made me a more engaged and innovative teacher. I guess that's not something that I can replicate (you only get tenure once), but it is something that I think I would be well served by remembering in future semesters.

5. With the exception of my online class, I haven't found myself dreading grading or falling way behind on it. I think this is partly because I've given myself permission to cut down on the number of graded assignments in some classes in some courses, and it's because I've gotten to the point where I'm only assigning stuff that I'm interested in grading. Instead of seeing graded assignments as disconnected from my own interests, I'm viewing them as more organic to me. I still have outcomes that I need to make sure students achieve through those assignments, but I don't just fall back on tried and true assignments that traditionally measure those things. In creating assignments that I find interesting, I'm much less likely to resist grading them. This may seem obvious, but I'd never thought about it that way before - or really internalized what approaching graded assignments that way would mean for me or my students.

Now, let me be clear: I am fully aware that I am leading a charmed life in the classroom this semester. I know that I will have classes that don't work so well in the future, that it's unlikely that I can expect every future semester to go this smoothly even with all of the above in place. But it's nice to know a semester like this can happen, even if only every once in a while.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Movement for Slow Communication?

So yesterday, I hit a crucial milestone. Indeed, I finally entered the 21st century.

But before we get to that, let's talk for a moment about what I was listening to on the NPR just immediately before. Diane Rehm was interviewing John Freeman about his new book The Tyranny of Email, and Freeman was advocating a movement toward "slow communication" - a return to letter-writing, a resistance against ever faster forms of communicating (email, for one, but also Twitter, blogging, Facebook, texting). As I was listening, I found myself nodding in agreement about a lot of what he was saying. I spend a lot of my life resisting the need to be constantly available for communication. This may sound odd, given the fact that I've got a blog. But the thing that I like about blogging is that it's not really about me being constantly available: I choose when I post, I choose how frequently I check in, I control the amount of engagement that I devote to the blog. In contrast, I struggle with the amount I'm expected to be available via email, via phone, via whatever. As a professor, I've got pretty near constant demands for my attention. And one of the things about being always in touch is that one can't actually pay total attention to any one thing. I don't like that. My thought has always been that I need to manage my availability so that when I'm, say, meeting with a student, I'm really focused on that student. Not on what emails come in or the phone that's ringing. When I'm shopping, I want to be 100% shopping - not answering calls or texts on a cell phone. When I'm on the phone, I want to be 100% in the conversation I'm having - and I want other people to show me the same courtesty. (Though I'll admit that even I become distracted sometimes when on the phone, so it's not like I'm some paragon of single-tasking virtue or something.)

At any rate. The point is, one way in which I've maintained my commitment to this is that I've resisted participating in what I like to think of as "cell phone culture." I do not need to be on the phone when I'm out in the world. I do not need to be texting when I'm walking around on campus (something that fills me with constant rage when others do it, and let's not even start with the people who text and DRIVE). Now, I did finally succumb to having an "emergency" cell phone maybe 6 or 7 years ago - one of those ones you buy at target and you just load with minutes. I only ever had it on or used it when I traveled, for the most part. But recently, I'd found myself thinking that it was time for me to have a "real" cell phone - one that I might be more likely to use and one through which people could, ostensibly, get a hold of me - if only every now and again. I'll admit, the frequent mailings from my home phone company about deals may have had something to do with my interest in pursuing the mobile technology. Even Crazy is susceptible to the advertising. Also, my parents both have cell phones, and have done for years, and they've been bugging me to have a cell phone that I actually use.

But so anyway, after listening to this interview in which the interviewee waxed poetic about how we all needed to turn off our cell phones and our computers and return to writing and sending paper letters, I walked into the Cell Phone Store. It was packed with people, young and old. So it was my turn to be taken care of, and the very nice boy who waited on me I think found me hysterical. First, he couldn't believe that I'd never had a "real" cell phone. I suppose he doesn't encounter many people like me in his line of work. He looked at me with wonder when I asserted that "I refuse to become one of those cell phone people." Indeed, he was confused by this statement, and I had to explain what "Those Cell Phone People" are. And then, somehow, I walked out of that store with a brand new Blackberry Curve and a spring in my step.

Now, let's just note that I had not intended to get such a fancy phone. I was just thinking "real phone that doesn't suck like my silly cheap-ass phone." But it turns out a) that the blackberries were the cheapest phones to buy, b) that somehow even with one of the lowest-minute plans, I get unlimited texts, access to email and the internet, GPS, etc., and c) that my monthly bill for home phone/internet/cell will actually go DOWN from what it was. (No, I don't understand how that's possible, really, but apparently for the 75 bucks after rebate that I spent on the phone, the world is now my oyster in terms of "mobile device" technology, without an increase in my monthly bill.) Ah, the world of bundling. And no contract.

What's insane is that last night I had a dream that my phone was caught in a horrifying rainstorm/flood/fountain of water, and that I had to rescue it. Apparently, I am in love and fearful that my phone will somehow be compromised, even though prior to yesterday, I cared not at all about such things. Have I become "one of those cell phone people"? In less than 24 hours?

I think no. But here's the thing. I don't really think the answer with technology is to turn back the clock. I think the answer is probably figuring out how to negotiate it and not to become ruled by it. We'll see how that goes for me.

But I heart my phone. It is awesome.

(A few people have asked why I didn't get the iPhone. Well, the only reason is because I am committed to keeping a home phone and I didn't want to spend like a gajillion dollars more a month to have it plus a cell. I still prefer to talk on a land line, and as a single lady alone in the world, I believe in a home phone for 911-related purposes, and also in the event of things like power outages. I know I'm old-fashioned. But this is how it is. And since I've got my home phone, my internet, and the cell through one provider, I get to have all of my things without any extra cost. And my company doesn't carry iPhones. So there we are.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Um, Enough with the Death, Please

Uncle Eddie, my Lebanese uncle with whom I stayed when G. and I went to Lebanon in July 2008, died. He was old (in his 80s), he wasn't well, but, well, it's just really, really sad. G.'s mom, my tayta, was his sister, and now she is the only sibling left. And after all of the horrible losses that she's faced, this is just so heartbreaking on top of it. (She's already had to survive the death of her husband, the deaths of all her other siblings, and the deaths of 4 of her 8 children. It's just too much.)

Uncle Eddie, well, what can I say about him? The most appropriate thing that keeps coming into my head is that he reminded me of my Uncle Dick, the brother of my favorite little gramma (who died just around this time of year in 2003) who died when I was in grad school. Except that doesn't explain anything to you all. Other than that I loved them both from the same place in my heart.

Uncle Eddie immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s or early 1970s, I think. He got his citizenship, owned a business, married a Lebanese-American woman and made his life here. He sent his sons to Ohio State. He loved football with a passion, and he loved his sister and her children. When Tayta was so afraid during the civil war, when her children's lives were in danger, her brother sponsored her immigration, and with his help, she got her citizenship which was the first step in getting nearly her entire family to the United States. (Only one of her grandchildren remains in Lebanon - the rest of the family is all now in the United States. This is a pretty amazing feat, as you might imagine. Her grandchildren number in the double-digits - great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren added to that... well, you get the picture. My Lebanese family is even bigger than my blood-related family, and that's saying something given the fact that my mom was one of 10 kids and my dad was one of 7.) And he was G.'s favorite uncle, and G. made a point of introducing my mom to him when he first started dating her. He loved my mom. He was disappointed that my mom didn't come with me and George to Lebanon when we went. It's such a regret for me now that she didn't.

After Uncle Eddie's wife died, and once his sons were married and established, when he was ready to retire, he returned to Lebanon and has been there for the past 20 or so years. He remarried. Every day he put on his pants and dress-shirt, and a cap, and went into Batroun to do any small shopping that needed to be done. When he returned home, he'd put on his shorts and his t-shirt and relax.

He taught me to play quatorze (a game sort of like rummy, though it involves gambling). Every day he asked whether I was having fun. We drank coffee together, ate octopus and sea urchin together. He opened his home to me as if I weren't just a step-child but as if I were G.'s own. As if I were his own. He was.... He was just so loving and generous and great. And I'm really, really sad that I'll never get to see him again - to hang out with him again. And it's so sad that there's absolutely nothing I can do - that he's a world away. I can't even imagine how G. and my tayta feel.

So here's a picture of Uncle Eddie and G. I'll probably take it down, but I want to remember him how I knew him. And I want to show you him (and G., for even though G. looks like he's a thousand - he's on the right - isn't he just so handsome and darling?). I want to think about Uncle Eddie alive and G. happy.

In other miserable news, my father's mother - my one remaining blood-related grandparent - is in the hospital with pneumonia. Any prayers you've got, please send them her way. Beginning with my chair's death last November, this has seriously been The Year of Death. I really don't know how to take any more.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tired, But Seeing the Light

MUWCI passed the first Major Voting Body that it needed to pass in order to for real and for true to become approved. It's not perfect. I don't even like some of the things that it has morphed into. But I don't need to be madly in love with it, nor does anybody else. It just needs to pass. And it did! And I love that the person who made the motion for the vote was a colleague who's done nearly as much for it as I have, and that I was the one to second the motion. And, shit, it was gratifying to see that it didn't just die a sad and pathetic death today. And it also felt really good that people congratulated me for all of my efforts. I wasn't the only person who busted their ass on this, but I really did bust my ass. And it's nice to be recognized for that.

So now on to the next Major Voting Body. I'm cautiously optimistic.

I also got confirmation today that pushing the "new major" through the curricular process (for which I'm primarily responsible) is not going to be the Horrifying Ordeal that it might have been if a particular spot on a form had to have Incredibly Specific and Fucked Up Information included on it. Rather, it turns out that this document I created years ago that nobody (pretty much universally) pays attention to has all of the information necessary for that spot on the form, so even work that I've done that is nearly universally ignored is ultimately useful to me and good for our department generally. Huzzah!

My classes are going amazingly well. Have I mentioned that? Like seriously: all of them. Even the on-line one. Even the class that I hate teaching at night because it attracts a fucked up population of students at night. Even the grad class (in spite of one student who clearly doesn't read), and most especially My Favoritest and Most Important Class That I Teach.

And speaking of teaching, I put in my request for my two-year scheduling preferences today, and I'm pleased with what I've asked for. I'm also really hoping that I get my heart's desire. I even put in a request for next fall, although I sincerely hope that I get my sabbatical and that there will be no teaching next fall. (I'm a superstitious gal, and I couldn't just not put in the possible schedule, for fear that the gods would strike me down if I exhibited such hubris.) I've decided that I really want to return to teaching comp - though on my terms. I want to teach one section of freshmen writing a year, in the fall with little brand spanking new Freshmen. So assuming the sabbatical comes through, I'll return to this in Fall 2011. I think this is a good thing. Let's just note that the fact that I'm not returning to 4 sections of comp a year (2 each semester) is not me failing to be a team player. Even since I got rid of comp from my schedule, I teach 3/4 of my classes as service classes, and I always (and will continue to) teach one course online (which is a huge service to the university). So limiting the teaching of comp is not about getting out of teaching the general population for me, and it never was: it's just about the fact that I'm best as a lit professor, and I'm best when I don't resent the courses I'm teaching. That said, I actually miss teaching first-semester freshmen, and I even miss teaching them writing. I was burnt out when I found my way out of the comp rotation, and the couple of years off from it have been really, really good for me. And no, I don't want to go back to my former (hellish) comp rotation. But I do want to return to the comp classroom. I'm even sort of excited about it.

For the rest of my courses, I've designed a rotation that incorporates the best of the old while leaving room for some new experiments. And one of those new experiments would be a course that I would propose that would be The Course on the Next Book, which I want to marry just thinking about it.

Hmmm. What else? I've been diligently reading job applications, helping BES with her SoP and getting my LoR for her submitted at the places with online apps, I submitted another student's rec for Teach for America, tomorrow I'll do all of the paperwork stuff for the New Major, and over the next four days (it's our fall break) I'll clean my house and finish the revisions for the essay that's been accepted with minor revisions.

When all that's done? I shall be FREE! FREE! FREE AT LAST!

Oh, and tonight I taught my grad students the first half of Foucault's History of Sexuality volume I. And I so know my shit when I'm teaching Foucault. It was awesome.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

RBOC: Oof.

  • I spent most of the day today, when I wasn't at meetings, working on recommendations for two of my most favorite students ever.
  • Good recommendations, I have calculated, take approximately 3x the amount of time to write that one schedules for writing them.
  • I really like recommending strong students. Except for the fact that I feel like if I fuck up the recommendations that I will be responsible for ruining their lives.
  • We're doing a search this year - well, actually two, but I'm only on one search committee. The ad for the search I'm on was only posted like a week and a half ago. We've already got 8 complete apps in, and we could ostensibly hire any one of them. I know this because I've already read the 8, for I fear that as we edge ever closer to the deadline we'll end up with like 800 applications. Damn you, recession job market. Damn you. Damn you, recession job market, who makes a job at my university seem like a plum gig. (Two of our apps so far are from people with tenure elsewhere, and one is from an advanced asst. type person. Note to junior people who think that people with more experience are more likely to get interviews: these were not the best applications I read.)
  • I heart Michel Foucault, who has something to say about all things that interest me, regardless of my developing intellectual interests.
  • Anybody got a recent (successful) statement of purpose from grad school apps for English lit programs that they want to send my way (reassignedtime at gmail dot com)? It occurs to me as I'm trying to advise BES about hers that I've never seen one other than my own (which I no longer have a copy of because I was horrified at writing it, although I suppose it probably does exist on a floppy disk somewhere, though of course, I couldn't hope to retrieve it with any contemporary computing technology, even if I knew where to look for it).
  • I'm a little freaked out that BES has decided to include my grad program on her list of places to apply. I think it's a program that would be a really good fit for her, but at the same time, I'm totally wigging that the fact that she's "my" student will hurt her chances. This is an asinine thing for me to wig about, but even Dr. Crazy has her lingering insecurities.
  • I'm excited that I'll be able to try to work some back-door connections for BES in her application process, because it makes me feel like I'm fancy and like I'm really a real member of this profession. I have connections! I have people to email! Huzzah!
  • Again though, with the lingering insecurities: what if my connections aren't as strong as I think that they are? What if everybody thinks I'm a loser? What if I really am a loser? (Clearly I'm in a place of deep self-doubt. I shall not let this deter me.)
  • I just happened upon a pseudo-ex on Facebook, and apparently he's changed his first name (which I love) to the first name (not unlike his real name) of a real-ex. I find this entirely horrifying. Can I just say that he is entirely as beautiful as I always thought he was, though? Ever so much more beautiful than the real-ex whose first name he's adopted? Tragically, he is in Alaska. Though perhaps not so tragically, as he's really tragically fucked up. I nevertheless continue to love him with a love that is pure and true. And through him, I also happened upon his Real Ex whom I loathed when he was my pseudo-boyfriend. She remains hideous, which is some small comfort to me. For I am shallow.
  • FB called me "sweetie" last night. This is so totally unlike him. Eew. And also, lovely. I must have really been in a state for him to resort to such language.
  • Man-Kitty and Mr. Stripey are elegant and ferocious feline companions. They dislike it when I'm working so hard and stressed out. Really, my job should take their needs into account. Mr. Stripey needs a great deal of love, and Man-Kitty resents having to deal with my moods. Seriously.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What? You Thought This Would Never Happen to You?

So. A colleague of mine came to me recently with a problem. The colleague is a guy, he's tenured, and he is in the middle of a situation in which a student treated him with an utter lack of respect and challenged his authority.

And of course most of you, either by experience or second-hand, know how this story goes. As so frequently is the case when it comes to such interpersonal challenges with students, the student has been one for whom professor bends over backwards, and the more the professor resists shutting the student down, the more the student pushes, until ultimately, BLAMMO! KABOOM! The grenade is thrown, and the professor is left to handle the debris.

Now, the details of what the student said or of the exact situation aren't ultimately important. What is important is that once I got over my outrage on my colleague's behalf (and really, this particular situation is totally outrageous, even by my world-weary standards), and as I started trying to help him to strategize about potential ways to handle this student and the situation moving forward, something that shocked me quite a bit more than this student's behavior came to light: this was the very first time that this ever happened to my colleague.

That's right. Never before - not when he was a T.A., not when he was a new hire, not in any course-specific context - has he ever had an overt challenge to his authority in the classroom. Now, I'm sure he's a great professor and all, and unlike me (and every woman professor I know who demands a high level of performance from her students) he's got uniformly great ratings on Rate My Professor, but come on people. He's been teaching for 10+ years. And never a challenge like this? Never a situation like this? I get at least one of these a year if not in each and every semester. Still. And early on in my teaching career it wouldn't be just one student - it would be tiny little cells of students within a section who'd try to overthrow me.

I remember the first time that it happened. I was in graduate school, and it was about three weeks into the term. I was at the end of my rope. I'd done all of the things you're supposed to do to make the classroom a collaborative and positive environment, I'd tried to be nurturing to my students, I'd tried to be gentle, yet firm. And things were only getting worse. Worse and worse. Not only was I dreading teaching the class, but it was clear a good number of the students were dreading the class, too. And, fortunately, I ran into my dissertation director, and he advised me in no uncertain terms that it was my job to get things back on track, even if it meant I had to play the heavy. But that's oppressive! But that goes against all of these theories about creating a student-centered environment in the classroom! Well, he replied, how exactly are you being an effective teacher and doing your best for the students in this class if you don't stop this from happening in your classroom?

And you know what? He was right. And no, I never entirely fixed things that term, but I learned a lot about what it means to create an environment in which all students can learn and in which I can be the best teacher possible. Maybe it's not warm and fuzzy, but maybe warm and fuzzy isn't the primary thing a classroom should be. Maybe warm and fuzzy can only happen once a baseline is set for civility and respect, and maybe that starts with how I allow students to treat me.

And yet, I didn't really believe that what happened in that semester would recur regularly throughout my teaching career. No, it doesn't happen in every class that I teach, nor does it happen in the majority of classes that I teach. Maybe it happens with such regularity because I teach four sections a term, so students get more bites at the disrespect and incivility apple. But whatever the reasons, it does happen consistently, in ways subtle and not so subtle.

Subtle: The student who refuses to call my Dr. or Professor Crazy, after many, many corrections.
Not-Subtle: The student who complains to the chair that I marked him/her down for consistent proof-reading and grammatical errors on an assignment in an academic writing course, because the student should be able to be "creative" and to write however he or she sees fit.
Subtle: The students who criticize me on course evaluations because "she acts like she knows more about the material than we do." (Note to students: I do know more about the material than you do. In a professor, that's really a positive, not a negative. If I don't correct you when you get something wrong, I'm not actually teaching you. I'm not sure how to teach without demonstrating, or "acting like," I know more than you do. Sorry if that upsets you.)
Not-Subtle: The student (or in this case group of students) who constantly chatters while I'm lecturing, distracting me and other students who are trying to pay attention, after I've gently told them to cut it out.
Subtle: The student who assumes that course policies, clearly stated, don't apply to him/her, and looks aghast when I enforce them.
Not-Subtle: The student who confronts me in front of the whole class, asserting that my selection of a book for a course was "inappropriate" and that I'm not qualified to make judgments about what books belong on a syllabus.

I could go on. But the point is, authority is not something that I just have by virtue of the facts that I'm the lady with the Ph.D. and that I'm the one who grades. I've never experienced being "a professor" as insulating me from challenges to authority, nor have I experienced it as a position that uniformly and without exception accords me some special kind of respect. And so I've always been surprised when in conversations with colleagues (of the male variety) when they talk about these things as a perk of the job, that one of the things that they like about being A Professor is that it's an occupation that commands Respect.

Look, even as a professor, I've got to walk in there and earn respect. Every freaking day. Because when they see me, they don't see A Professor. And that's whether I wear my teacher costume or jeans, that's whether I look stylish or frumpy, that's whether I'm stern or whether I'm "nice." It just doesn't matter.

The up-side, though, is that after years of handling this shit, it no longer hurts my feelings, and also I have an arsenal of tools at my disposal for handling it. All one can do is to develop a thick skin and to do one's best to nip such things in the bud as much as is possible before they get totally out of hand. And you know, as much as that does suck, at least I haven't had one of these situations get totally out of hand in years (and knock wood that this continues). I've become competent in shutting down the disrespect before it gets to the level where I need to create paper trails and get my chair involved. That's got to be worth something, right?

But that was the other thing that came through in my conversation with my colleague. For him, this was like this totally outlandish and awful thing that happened. He was at a loss. He had done all the right things, really had gone above and beyond, and all he got for his trouble was shit. On the one hand, I understand his anger and his shock. And maybe he is even right to take it personally. Since this isn't a regular part of his job, maybe it is, actually, personal, and maybe he's right to feel personally hurt and affronted.

On the other hand, though, I kind of feel like the ability to take it personally and to have hurt feelings over this sort of thing is also an effect of (hetero, white) male privilege. So while I do empathize, and I've been there myself, and my colleague also recognizes - though perhaps for the first time concretely - the privilege within which he's been operating, so he's not at all an entitled jerk.... With all of those caveats in place? Cry me a river. Now you see how the other half lives.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hmmm. Perhaps Energy Comes with Complaining?

I have awakened on this Monday morning positively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Now, sure, I've got lots to accomplish, but somehow, all of it seems positively within the range of my doing. I suspect that my whining of yesterday helped, as did the fact that I went to bed at 10 PM last night and only awakened at 8:30. I also have the pleasure (and I'm not even being sarcastic here) of recommending one of my favoritest students for Teach for America. (If you're not familiar with the process, they only ask for recommendations after the student passes through initial cuts and an interview, so getting to the recommendation phase is a really big deal.) Of course, I'm all energized to do this and not my grading, but I think I'm going to do a thing where I answer one question after each grading task, as sort of a reward set-up for myself.

So anyway, all of the angst of yesterday has gone and now I'm back in a happy place. Hooray! (Angst, crankiness, and rage will surely follow as the week continues, but for now, hooray!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In Which I Wish I Could Be a More Interesting Blogger

So it's Sunday, and I've got That Sunday Feeling in which I beat myself up for all of the things I've failed to accomplish, while at the same time I refuse to actually do the things on my to-do list, because, well, we're just about at the half-way point of the semester, and you know, I'm cranky.

Except of course I wouldn't be nearly so cranky if I didn't have so much to do, and the only way to make that not happen is to do some of these things so that they won't be on the list. Which came first - the crankiness, the self-loathing, or the way too many things to do? It's a vicious cycle.

But so don't think I haven't noticed how lame the blog has been lately. This is only my fifth post of the month, and of those, three have been about my rage and righteous indignation and this one is about being cranky. Not entertaining to read, I know. Or maybe it is? Maybe you read these things and you think to yourselves, "well, at least I'm not dealing with THAT! my life's great!" in which case, perhaps I'm performing a public service with my bad blogging?

The thing is, it's all not so dire as it may seem from this here blog. It's just.... I don't know how to blog about a lot of what's going on with me. I've found myself returning to my journal and also starting the research journal for the Next Book. Maybe because in those spaces I don't feel like it makes any sense to think about the entirety of my job? See, it's the entirety of things that's causing my lameness here. This is a space in which I think about the whole job. And well, I've been dealing with a lot of irritating crap related to the whole job. Rewarding crap, crap I'm invested in, but irritating crap nonetheless. And so I find myself showing up in this space only when I'm too irritable for the other spaces, if that makes sense. And when I'm not irritable, I find myself not wanting to write here, because I don't want to actually make myself irritable.

But so anyway, today I pissed away my day. I had a list and everything - I just didn't bother to look at it or to do the things on it (for the most part: though I did work out, so that's something). And so now, here I am, knowing that this list Exists, and yet still not wanting to do the items on the list. But I don't want to do anything else either, and so I'm writing this angsty post. I'm even irritating to myself, for whatever that's worth.

The thing about procrastination, as I well know as a skilled procrastinator, is that it's totally ok that I didn't accomplish anything today. I can seriously get most of the things done on the list tomorrow. It's just pushing everything into that one day will mean that I'm frantic. It also means that I feel bad about the time that I've spent not working, which is really screwed up. What I should have done is just made the list all for tomorrow and let myself chill about the weekend. Instead, I pretended to myself that I'd accomplish things today, so I felt guilty all day and yet I'm still in the same stupid predicament. I know that this is not positive, but here I sit.

So anyway, I'm going to try to post about some things in the coming weeks that aren't all of this pissed off bullshit. The problem is, I have no idea what those things might be.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

On Compromise (And No, This Isn't about Service)

So I got a request. A request that came down from my dean through my chair. The request was to move my request for sabbatical from Fall semester to Spring semester.

The reasons for this were sound. Too many faculty were requesting sabbatical for Fall, and some of those faculty technically fall in the same teaching areas. Will there be courses for students who need to graduate? Will all faculty who apply for sabbatical in our department get it if we are competing amongst ourselves?

But let me tell you. I found myself massively pissed off at this request to accommodate when I found it in my in-box. And let me tell you why.

I am the only faculty member in recent memory (if ever) who has published a motherfucking book prior to tenure.

I am one of the most published members of my entire fucking department in reputable scholarly venues, even though I've only been here since Fall 2003. The most published person, in reputable scholarly venues, has been employed here since before I was motherfucking born (1972).

I have never had a sabbatical (one only qualifies at this establishment after tenure), and I have only had two courses of reassigned time for research since my arrival, and yet, the above is what I've accomplished.

I have a service record that is, compared to people at my rank, above and motherfucking beyond. Community service? Done it. Department service? I can't even count the ways I've served, and on important committees, too, in addition to in totally invisible ways. University-wide service? Been there done that, and particularly with MUWCI most recently, but other things, too. Professional service? Dude, I'm the president of a motherfucking MLA Allied Organization, I'm a peer reviewer for three journals (currently), and I've done more besides.

Dude, give me my sabbatical for the period of time in which I've requested it. I'm a good risk. I've never failed to deliver on promises I've made when requesting support (a) and I've delivered above and beyond even when I've motherfucking been denied support (b). You give me the sabbatical I request, and I'll clearly achieve what I've promised with that award. How do you know? Well, maybe because I'm one of the few people in my department who's ever produced anything worthy of note. Whether I'm obligated to do so by such an application or not. Oh, but also, the very few times I've been obligated by any small amount of institutional support? I've never failed to meet the goals I'd said I'd achieve.

You know what pissed me off so much about the request I'd received to change semesters? To compromise for the good of the department? I know, because of the tiny bit of effort that I put into thinking about this when I was asked.

1. The person who likely applied for the slot of "Competition #1" for the Fall semester because he's trying to extend the maternity leave/sabbatical situation that his partner (also in our department) has worked out for this year. Let's just note for the record that I was the one who insisted to both colleagues that the partner should get maternity leave plus the sabbatical leave that had already been awarded. I don't think that sabbaticals should be used for maternity leave. On the other hand, I also don't think that people who are not proven researchers should trump my motherfucking application for sabbatical at a particular time because they happen to have infants. Dude, sabbatical is about research and research potential. Period. And you, compared with me, don't compete.

2. The person who likely applied for the slot of "'Competition #2" for the Fall semester is likely the person who was the "internal candidate" for my position. (Times were flush, and they converted this person from lecturer to t-t, while at the same time hiring me from outside t-t.) Let's note that this person does not do scholarship in "our" field at all. Rather, he writes poems and fiction (which I've heard he forces students to listen to him read in literature courses - not creative writing ones) and he teaches One of the Most Difficult Novels of All Time, which at minimum in all contexts (grad and undergrad) takes 6 weeks to cover, in three. And then he gives his students a certificate congratulating them for "reading" it. I wish I were kidding. In other words, this person, seriously? Nice enough, on a personal level, but really, you're going to ask me to change my sabbatical request for this person? Seriously?

And you know what I wanted to respond, when I thought about the request that I received to change my plans to be a "team player" for the department?

Fuck you, fuck you, FUCK YOU.

What I actually responded with was a detailed, bulleted list that delineated my reasons for needing the sabbatical for the period in which I requested it. 'Cause, see, here's the thing: I already and really had reasons for requesting it for that period of time. Ones related to my potential to produce. Because isn't that what a motherfucking sabbatical application is supposed to be about? I know, I'm naive. How could I imagine that this would be the case.

To my chair's credit, he got my reply and he totally was all "I hear you" and he didn't try to persuade me to change after that. Have I mentioned recently how much I think my chair really rules? Dude, he rules. He is like the Uber-Chair. All that said though? How dare he try to get me to budge on this. How dare he even ask. Because, seriously? I deserve some motherfucking credit. I deserve some motherfucking acknowledgment. At the end of the day, it's totally clear that I am teh awesome. (Not in myself, but just according to CV criteria). With that being the case, being "equitable" doesn't involve asking me to fuck myself, knowing that I'm a good department citizen.

(FYI, I talked to my chair today, I learned that it was Colleague #2 who caved.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Good Defense May Win Championships - Getting Defensive, Not So Much

It's that time of the semester. Everybody's overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted. People have short fuses, and people are feeling totally stressed out. I get it. I'm right there in the trenches as well.

But, as we all have learned from our work in the classroom, the quickest to ensure that a section goes to hell in a handbasket is for the instructor to stop playing his/her game. As soon as students realize that the instructor has thrown out his/her playbook, that's when things get messy.*

This is not a post about teaching, though. This is a post (as you might imagine) about MUWCI, which had been progressing slowly but surely, until people lost their damned minds at the start of this week.

Now, lots of people are losing their minds. Some of these people are those with Deep Fears about what MUWCI will mean going forward. But that's no big deal, right? The collegial governance process is in place precisely to manage those Deep Fears and to address those Serious Concerns. I believe in collegial governance (call me crazy), and I don't see a reason to freak the hell out just because people are using that process as it is supposed to be used and for that which it was designed. In contrast to my views on this issue, however, a good number of people would like to throw out the playbook and instead to start playing the other team's game. This is driven by their Deep Fears that the whole thing will implode as a result of the offense of others with the Deep Fears and Serious Concerns.

Frankly, I think this is exactly the wrong way to play it. I think that getting defensive (as opposed to playing strong defense) is not playing to win.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to just keep playing by the original (carefully designed, thoughtfully constructed) playbook. If the coaches (i.e., administrators) lose their shit and start micromanaging the game, inventing new plays as they go along without listening to their players (faculty who have been deeply involved in the process, who have deep familiarity with the current playbook and with the playbook of the other team), that does not equal getting out in front of the other team's offense. All it equals is handing the game over to the other side. And that's just not good football. Er, policy-making.

*This is not to say that I don't think that one can/should adapt as a semester moves forward. But I do think that the instructor needs to demonstrate that he/she has authority over the field.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Thoughts on What I'd Do If I Ever Won the Lottery

So somehow this topic came up on the phone last night, and I've been thinking about it periodically since then. Let's just say that I won the lottery. Like the Powerball. And I came away 90 million dollars richer. What would I do?

(Let's note for the record that I am not a person who plays the lottery. In other words, the likelihood of me winning the lottery is even smaller even it is for people who actually play the lottery, i.e., I won't be winning the lottery.)

So FB (with whom I was having this conversation) has a variety of thoroughly considered plans for his lottery winnings (he is a person who does buy the lottery tickets, so I suppose it makes sense that he's given this a great deal of thought). The bulk of his plans are short-term, but they involve things like gifting various people in his life the highest amount that one can do without tax consequences (yes, he's even thought about the tax implications of his winnings/generosity, which is about five steps ahead of where I am in my "plan" for the lottery money that I will not win because I don't play), various locations in which he will buy homes and at what times of the year he would live in them, various philanthropic endeavors on which he would embark. Indeed, he imagines endowing a Fake Boyfriend Professorship and perhaps some Fake Boyfriend Buiding(s) to his current insitution, as well as putting his money (and energy) toward a variety of specific projects that have the potential to Change the World. All of these specific plans may have something to do with the fact that he's a Capricorn. Just saying.

So as we were talking, though, I realized that I had no fucking clue what I'd do if I ever came into a very large sum of money. As far as I can really get is the following:

  • I'd pay off my student loans (approx. $50K).
  • I'd pay off my car (like $13K).
  • I'd buy my parents a house (either pay off their current one or buy them a nicer one, depending on their wishes, so let's imagine that they want a new house and not the one they've got, maybe $250K).
  • I'd buy my own house (let's estimate $250K), and also probably some sort of a vacation home (let's throw out $250K as the figure for that as well, though I feel like I'd spend less on my vacation home than on my primary residence).
So, that puts me at 813K. And let's say I did some nice things like giving some money to some people and round it up to a cool million. And then let's imagine that I also spent (which I would) $100K to $2ooK or so on repairs/renovations to the ancestral home of G. in Lebanon. But if I won like 90 million dollars, well, that's just a drop in the bucket of my vast, vast fortune. And let's note that I have no idea where I'd buy my two houses, because of the following, which is the most important question here:

If I won the lottery, would I quit my job?

Would I quit my job? Now, on the one hand, I can imagine quitting my job. I can imagine no longer having this job, and instead spending my time attempting to write a novel, or being an independent scholar (for indeed, I wouldn't need travel money to present at conferences, and I could find a way to pay for research library access if I had 90 million dollars), or I could write a novel and be an independent scholar - no need to choose. I can imagine not having the service, not having the 4/4 teaching load, not having the stress of my current life.

Except. Except I'm really good at what I do in my current life, and I actually really enjoy the job that I have. I mean, really. But who wins the lottery and stays in a job that is so demanding? Only an idiot, right? Except... I really can't imagine upending my life because I came into a very large sum of money. I mean, I like my life. And, well, sure, I could go off and do any number of things with such a large sum of money, but...after a few years, how would I feel about giving it all up for that?

This is why I don't actually play the lottery. Because at the end of the day, I'm a girl who's about sure things. I don't need to win the lottery to be happy. I don't want to have to win the lottery to do what I want.

But what would you do if you won the big one? Because I clearly lack imagination.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Pragmatism and Ideals: A Post about Curriculum

Over the past week, I've had much occasion to think about curriculum, both within my discipline and across my university. One of the things that has been most striking to me is the way that deeply held and ultimately righteously held ideals can get in the way of good policy. What occurs to me as I write this is that some think that policy should be driven by ideals and not driven by pragmatic solutions. They don't separate ideals from implementation, nor can they see where idealism can coexist with pragmatism. They create a binary opposition, wherein ideals are on the side of all that is good and right and just, and wherein pragmatic solutions are on the side of all that is bad, and wrong, and unjust. And, it occurs to me, that this is ultimately a very top-down approach to thinking about curriculum. Father knows best, and it's Father's job to insist that x ideal is upheld, regardless of the pragmatic consequences of insisting on x ideal. Even if the ideal is an important one, important ideals don't necessarily translate easily into a policy that works.

Here is the issue: I think that policy is not ultimately about ideals. I don't think that policy should compromise ideals, or that we should ignore ideals when constructing policies, but that isn't the same thing as making policy with only ideals in mind. I think policy is about pragmatic solutions, and ultimately good policy is pragmatic, but also thoughtful, and pragmatic policy should support the ideals that an institution (or college, or department) upholds. Supporting, though, isn't the same thing as being driven by. The moment that we begin to think that ideals drive policy, I think we enter treacherous waters.

Not because ideals are bad. Ideals, are, obviously, something that we hold dear and that are incredibly important to the mission of higher education. However, ideals can tend to be very discipline-specific, and even specialization-within-a-discipline specific. Those ideals that I hold most dear are not the same ideals of a fabulous colleague of mine in Chemistry, and my colleagues in history and political science have ideals that I respect that neither I nor my colleague in Chemistry share. The thing about ideals is that they are shaped by individual and specific experiences. They are shaped by personal inclination and they are shaped by training. When we think about individual courses that we teach or develop, or our individual research agendas, ideals ultimately are central to the work that we do. And this is as it should be. But when we're thinking about things on a macro-level, in the area of program curricular development or university-wide curricular development, as opposed to on a micro-level of what an individual course over which we have total control should do, well, it occurs to me that to allow for ideals to drive what we do is a mistake. Again, this isn't to say that what we come up with shouldn't support ideals. It should, and it must. But ideals in themselves don't necessarily facilitate good wide-ranging policy that serves a multitude of needs.

Let us turn to the ever-popular discipline of Underwater Basket-Weaving to illustrate what I mean. Let's assume that I teach a course, Underwater Basket-Weaving 101. As the instructor of this course, it is up to me the outcomes that I believe should be achieved within this course, as it should be, if we believe in academic freedom. Let's say that I believe that students in this course should demonstrate the following Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs):

Students will:
1. Communicate in standard English and with attention to proper grammar about issues in Underwater Basket-Weaving with a clear attention to differences between a variety of audiences.
2. Understand different approaches to Underwater Basket-weaving, engaging with different theories of Basket-making in a variety of contexts.
3. Complete a Basket using at least three Weaving techniques, which demonstrates originality and initiative.
4. Understand the importance of Underwater Basket-Weaving in local, national, and international communities.

Fine student learning outcomes, right? And as the Czar (I mean, instructor) of this course, I can determine methods of assessing these outcomes (I mean, assignments that students will complete to demonstrate them), and I am the sole arbiter who determines what "counts." Fine and good.

But the moment that we move to the level of the Underwater Basket-Weaving major, some problems occur. I have a colleague who doesn't believe that students should have to communicate about basket-weaving to a variety of audiences. I have another colleague that objects to the "originality and initiative" SLO because those are squishy terms, and we can't agree on a definition for those terms that suits all who teach the course within the program. And I've got another colleague who thinks that students in this course must fulfill an outcome in which "Students will use the theory of Underwater Basket-Weaving in application to digital media," but I don't see the relevance of that, and the rest of the department is divided.

And let's telescope out further, assuming that this course is part of a general education program. SLO's 1 and 4 meet the Gen Ed SLOs, but nowhere in Gen Ed do we see evidence of SLO 2. My ideals, as an individual, might indicate that SLO 2 is crucial. But in terms of developing a program, can I get people across the university to agree about what these things mean? Let's note that I can't even do so within my own discipline. So probably not. So is it worth it to insist that this SLO be included in the program? And if it is, how do we come to agreement about what the SLO means and how it should be assessed?

The point of all of this is, programs are not about individual ideals, however much we respect the ideals of individuals. Programs are about what is achievable and assessable across a range of experiences and practices, across a range of ideals. The moment that we believe that our own individual ideals should shape a program, that is the moment that the program starts getting ridiculously complicated, and it is the moment that a program loses coherency, both for students and for advisers. The thing about curricular development at the program-level - as opposed to the course-level - is that it has to acknowledge that those ideals that we hold most dear personally are not necessarily (or even regularly) universal. We need to compromise more and more as we move further out from our own courses in developing programs, not because we don't believe in our ideals, but rather because we are sophisticated thinkers who recognize that not all people share our ideals. When people resist our suggestions that are rooted in our own specific ideals, this is not something that should inspire our mortal offense. Rather, it is something that should inspire us to consider how our particular ideals may not reflect the needs of the broader communities involved. Put another way, if I vote against you, it's not because I'm disrespecting you. It's because I think your specific agenda doesn't contribute to strong across-the-board policy. I honor your ideals, and maybe even share them. But what I care about is coming up with something that serves as many people as possible. I don't, ultimately, care about "winning" or care about having the most power.

At the end of the day, a good program is stream-lined. Everybody who participates in it can meet its goals. At the level of a course, individual instructors might decide to add things in that they believe need to be there. Nobody's saying they can't. All that is at issue in this discussion is that individuals shouldn't bully people into making their ideals the standard that all people have to meet. Instead, there should be compromise that allows the individuals in a particular group to promote their individual ideals that might not be shared, while the group agrees on baseline ideals that all should meet.

To me, this is common sense. Obviously, in my course on Underwater Basket-Weaving and Sexuality, I have certain outcomes that I believe my students must meet that might not fit into everyone's conception of what students must do in a course within the major or a course within the general education program. So I add those. I'm not being told that I can't address those issues, or that I can't demand that students perform in a certain way. At the program-level, what we're talking about is a baseline. Not about a cap. It's not rocket science, people. And it's not freaking about you. It's not even about your discipline or about the humanities or about the sciences or even about the status of professional programs. What it's about is students, and about shepherding students to graduation in a timely fashion. Or at least that what it's supposed to be about.

It's certainly not about turf. Woops. That's an ideal of mine that I want to impose on everybody else. But I totally think I'm right.