Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ah, Sunday

Well, after days of struggling and ruminating and futzing and just generally wigging out, I have completed and submitted an abstract for a paper for an MLA panel. (You don't believe me about the struggling and ruminating and futzing? I spent like 4 hours and the front and back of a sheet of paper just trying to figure out a title, which ultimately I think turned out to be lame. And I'm not even talking about the actual time spent dealing with the abstract.)

I think that part of my anxiety about this MLA paper abstract had to do with the fact that this is the first time in an age where I've proposed something to a panel organizer whom I don't know, and also that the abstract is based on a projected path for one of the projected chapters of the NB, which I can't be sure of until I, I don't know, actually start with the actual writing of the book. Another part of the anxiety has to do with the fact that the focus of the paper is on something I've not looked at carefully since I was an undergraduate, so while I'm an expert on X generally (and yes, I'm just going to say that I am an expert, even though that feels pompous and stupid), I am totally not an expert on this small area of X studies. Which meant that before I felt confident writing the abstract, I felt like I needed to skim or at least think about skimming all of the scholarship on small area of X studies. And then to further complicate matters, while it's true that I am theoretically comfortable with the thesis statement for this imaginary conference paper (both comfortable with the theory I'll use and comfortable in theory with the scope of the project), I'm not entirely comfortable with the broader scholarly context of the idea, so that meant even more reading and more hand-wringing.

New scholarly paths are exciting and energizing and ultimately good, and don't get me wrong, I'm glad I'm not still dealing with the ideas of the dissertation/book or anything that links in an obvious way to them, but man, new scholarly paths are a heck of a lot of work. I will say this, though: I haven't been so excited about the research part of my job for a good long while, and this beats all of the bureaucratic bullshit I've been dealing with of late any day of the week.

After all of that, I was inspired and I vacuumed and cleaned the litter boxes and moved all of my anxiety (er, books and articles and notes and stuff) to the dining room table (so now instead of having the Living Room, Dining Room, and Bedroom of anxiety, I just have the Dining Room Table of Anxiety).

Tonight BES is coming by and we're going to have some wine and hang out. I feel like my Dining Room Table of Anxiety will be a comfort to her in this time of stressful waiting to hear on grad applications, but that may be a lie I'm telling myself to excuse my cluttered and slovenly ways.

You know what I'm most looking forward to about buying a house? Having a room that is solely dedicated to research stuff that only houses a desk, my books, my files, and music, which is not also the room where I keep the litter boxes and that pretends to be a second bedroom, even though nobody's actually slept in it for years. I look forward to having an actual dining room that does not become the repository of scholarly anxiety, an actual spare bedroom, and an actual location for filthy kitten places that is dedicated to kitten filth. This may be asking for too much, but a girl can dream.

But so anyway, enough of all of this. I need to feed the kitties and take a shower.

Friday, February 26, 2010


So, I need to write this abstract, and I'm not in the mood to do it. And I probably should go to campus for this thing but I'm not gonna. And I've dealt with a flurry of emails today related to bureaucratic crap, and that has me in a snit. Blech. Ok, now I'm really going to go work on that abstract, even though I don't feel like it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Generous Reading in the Classroom and Elsewhere

So I've got this course this semester, one I teach all the time and that happily I'm teaching in my preferred time slot for it (a time slot that gets really great mix of majors/minors/non-majors), and I just finished teaching a book for which students generally feel very little, if any, love. Now, I teach this book every time I teach this particular course (every semester for the past... oh... 3 or 4 years), in spite of the fact that students never love it. And it occurs to me that I teach a lot of things that students rarely love. (I also teach a lot that they do love, but I'm less interested in that for the purposes of this post.) So in this post I'm going to ramble on in a far more scholarly way than I typically do in this space about why I think this is a useful exercise, although that rambling will be an oblique answer to that question. And I'll close with something that brings it back to the blogosphere, so there will be a payoff that is relevant even to those people who don't teach literature.

But anyway, in class we were discussing a particular part of the book that a number of students found unsatisfactory, and I asked, "well, why do you think that the author included this if it's so irritating?" or something like that, and they all looked at me blankly. And then, without premeditation, I said something along the lines of the following: "Look, I'm not saying that I want you to talk yourself into believing this is a successful move on the part of the author. It may not be. But I doubt the author included it thoughtlessly. I think that when we encounter something in a text that frustrates us that we should attempt to engage with it generously, to figure out why that choice might have been made and to examine what significance the choice might have. We still might think that it doesn't quite work, but I think being generous when we're frustrated usually gets us farther than nit-picking about the various things that frustrate us, or than dismissing them. The nit-picking and dismissal is easy. The generosity is the hard work, and actually, being generous in that situation is the path to solid critical reading." And then we moved back to the unsatisfactory thing in question, and I modeled generous reading for my students.

The reason that this stood out for me is that I don't recall ever putting what I try to get students to do quite that way or so clearly before, either to them or to myself, and also because I was surprised that I called "generosity" a prerequisite for strong critical reading. I think it's much more common to characterize what we do as literary critics as suspicion as opposed to generosity (and I'm thinking of a recent talk given by Rita Felski that I attended, and her current project is to analyze the hermeneutics of suspicion, and I feel like I should point in her direction because she's doing some really interesting stuff interrogating this tendency toward "suspicious reading").

But so anyway. Suspicion vs. Generosity. Here's the thing. I think that "suspicious reading" is typically considered "critical reading," whereas "generous reading" is typically considered stupid or obsequious or in some way dishonest reading, at least in the way that we commonly would think of it. Think about it. If you say, "Well, that's a pretty generous reading of So-and-So's argument," you don't think much of the reading. Either you think it's stupid or obsequious or both. Or if you say, "If I'm being generous, So-and-So succeeds in doing X," you're not really being generous at all - you're actually indicating your general distaste for everything that surrounds X. I know that I internalized that dichotomy as a student, even though I haphazardly embarked on my most generous reading to date in two of my dissertation chapters, and I embarrassed myself in my defense in describing my reading practice for those chapters. (Apparently it took me all of my years as an assistant professor to figure out what I meant when I said that to read Author X you had to go to the "Author X Place," a place that my dissertation director then responded that he "would never want to go.")

What occurred to me when I used the word "generous" in my class, years after it would have been useful in my dissertation defense, is that I do not at all think that generous reading fails as critical reading, at least not how I mean it. I think that generous reading means taking a book on its terms and... how do I put this?... trying to get inside of the book to see how it works. It's easy to dismiss a book. My students dismiss the books that I assign them all of the time. I dismiss a good portion of what I read as garbage. Dismissal isn't actually a critical response. Nor, really, is suspecting that the texts that one encounters all harbor some secret, sinister, or deep meanings. I think that maybe too often we mistake dismissal or suspicion for criticism, with the counterpoint to those things being passive acceptance.

For me, generous reading does not equal passive acceptance, and in fact, a generous reading takes us as often as not to a negative evaluation of a text, either in its entirety or just in part. But reading generously means that you're not searching for what's wrong in the thing that you immediately despise on first reading, to uphold your conviction that this is a thing to be despised. Reading generously requires that you actively engage with the text itself and on its terms, not your own. You can't just begin with your argument and look for examples that support it (the typical undergraduate approach to writing papers in literature courses or to contributing in class, an approach that we professors, to our detriment, are responsible for teaching our students). Generous reading means starting with questions, not with arguments, positions, or theories.

Now, what I'm describing above might sound a whole lot like a reactionary return to New Criticism. I don't mean it that way. I don't believe that we can absent ourselves from our readings, ignore our personal inclinations and preferences, ignore cultural and historical context, ignore the author*, and then aim for One True Objective Reading of the Inviolate Great Work of Literature. I think that we can assume that an author who has written a text and brought it to publication probably made choices for various reasons, and I think that we are going to react to those choices. But what interests me about reading is not really the choices in isolation, nor my reactions to them. What interests me is figuring out how the choices work to produce a variety of responses. What interests me is trying to understand the text and all of the parts of it, whether I like them or not. I'm still there in the reading, and so are all of the other factors, but when I'm reading generously - whether I enjoy the text or not, though this is especially useful with texts I don't enjoy - I do my best to put those considerations aside until after I deal with what's in front of me on the page and map out how it operates. (In other words, "liking" a book passively does not constitute generous reading either. "Liking" is just liking - it's a beginning of criticism, just as "hating" is, but that doesn't mean it's generous.)

But so here's the thing. I have all these grand ideas about the reading of Lit'ratoor generously. But I struggle with this shit in my day-to-day reading life. See, I read this today, and I couldn't approach it generously: "Part of respecting diversity is allowing people the time and space to lead different lives. Some people go home to their partners and children. Some go home just to partners. Some go home to heaven knows what. And that's okay." I also had a hard time with approaching this generously: " is there is a huge difference between the cultural history and literary studies?"

I don't read blog posts or comments generously. I react. I think, in the moment, that people are fuckwits. What I've been experimenting with is pretending that I don't think that people are fuckwits, that I don't react in the moment, but rather that I read generously. The result of this mostly is that I don't respond directly to the items that enrage me. But that's not really generous reading, either. Because in my brain I disparage the writers of these statements as fuckwits. Generous reading would really be engaging with and accounting for the things that enrage me, which I don't do. What I do in my off-hours reading time is to think that people are fuckwits and then to ignore them willfully. That's not generous reading. That's being an asshole, really. And the fact that I publicly acknowledge that makes that no more acceptable than if I pretended it weren't true, let's just note. See, really, I'm not a generous reader. I only encourage it for my students.

*I'll admit, I'm not terribly interested in authorial intention, basically because I believe that writers of literature LIE, and in fact they're very good at it or they wouldn't be able to make up stories and poems and such, so how can we ever know what they intended. I am interested in an author's preoccupations, cultural and historical context, and stylistic tendencies, but we can actually trace those things without becoming the Psychic Friend of the author.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oof. Just, Oof. But I Suppose I'll Write Some Scattered Things about The Next Book

So. I promised in my last post that I was going to do a longer post soon about the Next Book project. And I really do want to, except I totally don't. What I mean is that I'm just feeling sort of overwhelmed with the variety of tasks that I've got going on right now with work (Irritating (or just time-consuming) Service, Grading, other teaching-related things, recommendations for scholarships to write, general crankiness, etc.) and so I can't find it in me to put together something coherent about the book project. When I'm feeling coherent about it, I just want to work on it or think about it or whatever, and then when I think to write about it I'm not feeling coherent, if that makes sense.

But so anyway. I spend a lot of my time these days plotting and planning regarding the Next Book, most particularly because doing so allows me to fantasize about my upcoming summer free of teaching followed by sabbatical. This is not to say that I'm not excited about the NB project - I surely am - but I think I'm relating to it a little bit right now as a talisman that I can pull out and cling to whenever I want to punch people in the face for reasons related to all the other parts of my job. This is interesting, this feeling that NB is an escape.... I never really felt that about my dissertation/first book, for what are probably totally obvious reasons. This is not to say that I wasn't excited about the dissertation/first book, but my relationship to it was very different. It was more like this hurdle that had to be jumped, a mountain that had to be climbed, as opposed to being like an oasis in a desert of bureaucracy and nonsense (which, yes, is how my job is feeling these days).

And so when I'm feeling downtrodden, NB is like this bright and shiny thing about which I can feel excited. Of course, this also makes me feel anxious. What if I'm being overly ambitious? What if I make all of these grand plans and then I end up not meeting my goals? What if everything I think is stupid? Or, if it's not (and I don't actually think it is), then what if somehow in the execution it comes out stupid? (That is entirely possible, though I don't actually think likely.)

Now let's note for the record that I was not at all ambitious in the "plans" or "projected progress" that I put into my sabbatical application. I reigned myself in so that I would surely meet those markers without a problem. But what I'm doing now are the "real" plans, except of course they are likely way too much to do in between now and next January. What is most likely is that I'll end up accomplishing something in between the low set of expectations that I promised and the very high expectations that I have for myself. Which is fine, I suppose, but I'd really like it a lot better if I could accomplish everything I really want to accomplish as opposed to something short of that.

How I'm envisioning my writing time is this. Most of the time, I'll be at home (so not traveling fancy places like Dr. Virago will be doing with her sabbatical), and I think I'm going to adopt the schedule that I kept when I wrote the bulk of my dissertation. That schedule (Monday through Friday) is as follows: 1) wake up at like 9 or 10 every day, and spend like 2-3 hours drinking coffee and plotting and planning. 2) Head to coffee shop with only those items I absolutely need in order to accomplish that day's work by 1-2 pm. Spend the next 4-5 hours working/writing. 3) Return home for dinner and some reflection on the work accomplished. 4) Relax, do whatever I want, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat. Weekends will be off, unless I'm feeling totally in some sort of irreplaceable groove. I don't think that's an unreasonable schedule, and I also think that it does mean, if I really follow it, that I will be able to have a substantial draft of the monstrosity, er, manuscript, done by January.

But the above, of course, is assuming that I get a good chunk of the research for it done this spring. Which I've already begun, and which I'm inspired to do by a variety of conference-type things that will happen (or have the potential to happen) over the next 10 months.

Which brings me to the thing I'm actually trying to put together right now, which is an abstract for consideration for an MLA panel. The problem is, what I'd want to present on is related to a novel that I've not done a thing with since I was an undergraduate, which means that I have to do a boatload of research just so that I can put together a non-embarrassing abstract. And that abstract is due in a week's time. Ugh.

On the other hand, though, doing all of this research is a good thing, as I'm anticipating that this will be the first chapter of NB that I will write, and so doing all of this research puts me in a strong position to knock out that first draft chapter in May/June. Also, all of this research will be useful for a conference paper I'm giving in June, so even if I'm not accepted to the MLA panel it's not for nothing that I'm doing it. Except, of course, I'm totally ignoring the fact that I hope to be moving house somewhere around May through July, which of course means that I'm not going to be doing any sort of daily writing when (thinking positively) that comes to pass.

But so anyway, tonight I plan to sit down with my articles and books and to get some good work done while watching the women's figure skating. And yes, there are other work-related things I could be doing (like revising a document for an upcoming meeting, or editing some other documents for another upcoming meeting) but I will not be doing those things today.

But for now, I need to go and continue with dinner preparations. I've got a chicken roasting (am going to make stock later with the carcass) and I need to prep the brussel sprouts that I will roast to go with it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Moving, Shaking

I have returned from my conference full with food and drink and exhausted.

On the negative side, I was kind of a lame conference attendee. I didn't attend as many panels as one probably should, and the paper that I gave was, in my estimation, definitely mediocre.

On the positive side, I met one of my Academic Heroes and got to have lengthy dinner conversation with zie because Fabulous Mentor Who is Fabulous and Works on All My Things (though in a totally different way from me) insisted I sit at the Fancy Table. Academic Hero also attended our panel, and had very complimentary things to say to BFF, which RULED. (BFF didn't realize prior to the question/answer period that AH was in attendance, which was even more awesome, as BFF was so totally blown away once she realized who zie was, though she also gave me what-for because she felt it was my fault that AH showed up, though in retrospect BFF retracted because clearly AH had to attend our panel given the topic of hir keynote talk, which, incidentally, totally made our panel not seem like the piece of fluff it primarily was.)

Did I mention that I got to spend quality time with one of my Academic Heroes? And that I'm filled with sparkly glee at the fact? Best. Unexpected. Conference. Happening. The only lame thing is that I really did give a mediocre paper, and AH witnessed that. Whatever. It was what it was.

But so now I'm home with the kitties and settling in for an early night. More to report very soon about The Next Book. I've got big plans, which become more solid as time passes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I Did a Very Bad Thing

I inadvertantly alerted BES (who's in the throes of awaiting acceptances/rejections) to this website. I am a bad, bad mentor.

(And yes, these sort of websites do allow one to feel as if one has information when no information is forthcoming, but they also hurt one's soul, much in the way of job wikis.)

Conference Paper, Done

Is it good? I really don't think so. But whatever, it is finished, and it's not a "real" conference paper anyway (I mean, it's for a real conference, but it's not directly related to my actual research projects) and so it doesn't need to be the best thing I've ever written. And now that it's done, I get to focus on "real" conference papers that will contribute to my "real" book project, and I'm nerdily excited about that. So, off to conference with BFF and FBA, and then I get to really begin in earnest on The Next Book! WOOHOO!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dealing with Weather

Buried under a mountain of snow, I've spent the morning revising (for the second time) my syllabus for my Tuesday/Thursday class. Between my grandmother's funeral, a sick day, and two snow days, well, as you might imagine, the schedule has had to change. I was able to shift things around in such a way that I haven't cut any material (yet - one more closing and we're fucked and that's when I'll have to just eliminate something), but the whole thing sucks. This class hasn't exactly been the most dynamic I've ever taught, and these cancellations are not helping to change the vibe in there. At this point, I think I may just need to accept that this class is not going to set the world on fire this semester. The time for me to change the vibe may have passed, if that time ever existed.

I posted a status update on Fb about the uncoolness of this latest cancellation, and a friend commented that this is the sort of situation where having part of the work of a course - if not the entire course - online can be helpful. I know that's the back-up plan our university pushed with fears about a massive flu outbreak, and as you guys might suspect, I'm comfortable with online stuff so my resistance to that as a solution doesn't come from some anti-technology stance. But I really don't think that the Internet solves the problems that I've got with this class, or could.

Because here's the thing: the issue is not actually about the material of the course not being able to be covered. I mean, it's a literature course: if you can't read when you're snowed in, then when can you read? The issue is more about getting students to dig deeply into the material, and in a F2F class, the place where that gets modeled is in the classroom. While in the online class I teach I've tried to find ways (and I think have somewhat succeeded) to produce a similar sort of active engagement and deep digging, what I've found in that environment is that it takes me about two weeks of the semester just to address the technology learning curve with those students, as well as to get them used to being active in an online environment. And this is with students who signed up for an online course.

And this is why I feel like the whole "but teh Internets are the future! No more changing of course schedules due to snow or the flu or whatever!" thing isn't realistic, at least for the students that I teach. Because in a F2F class, I don't take the time up front to acculturate students to working in an online environment, and so to spring that on them when the world becomes a snow globe wouldn't really be a reasonable substitute for what I'd have them do in class. In addition, there are two major impediments to the whole "let's move it online!" thing with my students:

  • Most of my students don't really know how to use much of Blackboard. Sure, they can find course documents or they can check their grades. But they don't know how to use the discussion board, they don't know how to participate effectively in an online discussion, they don't know how to use the "online classroom" function.
  • Many of my students don't actually have internet access at home. I know, right? But seriously: they don't. And it's unreasonable to expect that they should when they are not enrolled in an online course.
The fact of the matter is, if I've learned anything from developing and teaching an online course, I've learned that teaching effectively in an online environment requires different teaching practices than teaching in a F2F classroom. One has to rethink everything, including how one "lectures," generates and leads discussion, designs assignments, and gives feedback. I imagine that a similar rethinking would really need to happen if one were going to do the hybrid F2F/online thing effectively, too. And so the whole, "hey, just move it all online if there are too many cancellations" thing strikes me as really bad pedagogy and as a failure to acknowledge how much thought and care good teaching requires.

Now, some might say that I'm just being contrary, that nobody thinks "moving it online" is going to be as effective as teaching the course as designed but that it's the way to make the best of a bad situation. Well, ok. I guess. Maybe. But in what way is that better than shifting the course schedule around? I don't really think it is. And actually, doing it right would be a ton more work than just shifting the course schedule around, both for students and for faculty, a ton of work that would produce really weak results. I'm not into things that are more work when the results aren't worth it.

But I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm being closed-minded here. So have you "moved it online" as a back-up plan? If so, how has that worked for you?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Not Dead Yet

I know, I haven't posted in an age. But I'm not dead (yet).

First, there was the snow. Then, there's this mysterious illness (also known as the common cold) that has had me sleeping huge amounts and feeling sorry for myself. Then, there's the fact that I got the pre-approval crap underway for home ownership. (Aside: why is it that learning that my credit score is "through the roof" made me think, "I am really a fantastic and attractive person!" as if having stellar credit is some sort of index of self-worth? I blame capitalism.) But so I've got a conference paper to write, an abstract for an MLA panel to write, crap to catch up on with two of my three classes, a boatload of job-related stuff to do, and then of course there's the whole, "now I probably really have to call one of the four realtors whose names I've got and actually start looking for a house to buy," which seems like an awfully big step, as far as I'm concerned.

But so anyway, sorry for the light posting. Have just been very exhausted and busy and sick and tired. I am not yet ready, however, to be thrown on the cart with the other dead.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Workload, Teaching Load

Tenured Radical wrote a post today about class size, and it couldn't come at a better time for me because I've been thinking a lot about workload issues particularly as they relate to teaching. In fact, I started a post this morning about just these things, but it was so boring that I just deleted it without posting. After reading TR's piece, I feel like giving it another shot.

Now, I've got to say, as a caveat, before I launch in, that when I read TR's piece one of the things about it that was so striking to me was how wildly different her teaching context is from my own. In her world, 19 is a "large" upper-level sort of a class. In my world, the smallest class size I've got is 22 (both for upper-level classes in literature and for writing classes - and let's just note that the recommended maximum for writing classes according to those who write reports about such things is 16 or something, and that 22 was a victory for my department because writing courses used to be capped at 25 in recent memory). In my world, full-time, tenure-line faculty teach 4 courses a semester (more on that in a minute), not just two. Now, it is true that the research expectation at my gig is not as high as that where TR works, so comparing our gigs is in many ways like comparing apples to oranges. But her post provides a nice jumping off point because while the settings in which we teach are very different, and while the specifics of the debate change because of those differing settings, the core question about workload is philosophically the same.

The core question is, as far as I can reduce it down, do more bodies in seats per each section = greater teaching productivity/efficiency? In these times of budgetary woe, it seems like my administrators at least think that the answer to that question is "yes." There's lots of talk about raising class maximums, about finding ways to have tenure-line faculty teach more and more students, about how to organize teaching in a way that costs less and that yields more profit. There is something to be said for this model of thinking about things. According to a corporate model, efficiency = fewer dollars spent and more students "served."

But this is where things get sticky. What does it mean to "serve" our students? Are students "served" by ever-increasing class sizes? Yes, more of them will be able to enroll in and to complete a greater number of courses under this model. But is teaching productivity measured (solely) by enrollment figures? Should it be?

And, further, in my institutional context other issues, that I would say are most definitely teaching issues, enter the mix. Faculty are being strongly encouraged to direct more undergraduate research experiences, and those departments with graduate programs also have the responsibility to direct student theses. This is all teaching, right? None of this counts in terms of how our teaching loads are calculated. Our teaching loads are still calculated under the 1970-come-teach-your-four-courses-and-go-home-and-no-you-don't-need-publications-or-community-outreach-for-tenure model. Further, advising is also considered under "teaching" for promotion and tenure (something that was a change after I was here for a few years - it used to be service), and yet advising duties are also not factored into our teaching loads. So all of the above are "teaching," and yet, faculty at my institution are expected to undertake those tasks basically out of the kindness of their hearts. Sure, we get to list those activities on our cv's, and I suppose they count for annual review (although raises are not something that we're going to see anytime soon, so what does annual review even mean at this point?), but at the end of the day it's 4 courses per semester, with the threat of class sizes in those courses increasing (it hasn't quite been mandated yet, although that possibility is clearly in the air), plus academic advising duties plus advising students in their own independent research (though apparently we just do these for the joy of it, and not because it's our job, except of course it is our job).

Is this the most "productive" or most "efficient" learning environment for any student? I'd say no. No, not at all. I'd say faculty are half-assing it on all of their teaching because although the teaching load has remained "the same" since the university opened its doors, it has, albeit invisibly, increased. And faculty don't half-ass it because they don't care about students, or because they're not accountable, but because they're still expected to conduct research and to do loads of service (department, university, professional, and community, thank you very much), and if they let those other areas slide, they're fucked. The truth is, it's a lot more sensible to assign one fewer paper, to meet with fewer students, to do a crappy job advising student research projects, than it is, in terms of one's own professional future, to drop research or service in order to be a better teacher. As much as we are a "teaching institution," our institution doesn't appear to value teaching all that much. The institution definitely values student enrollments and retention, but that is not at all the same thing as valuing teaching or valuing learning. It is entirely the case that one can do a piss-poor job in the classroom and as long as the enrollments remain stable that one will be just fine at this institution. It is entirely the case that one can be a crap adviser of student research projects and that one's crappy work counts (or doesn't) exactly the same as somebody who does a great job with such duties. And my administration has absolutely no interest in changing this from being the case. It would wreak havoc on the budgetary bottom line if they did.

So some colleagues and I have been strategizing about ways that within our department we can try to address some of these workload issues. The reality is that we can't do anything about the number of courses that we teach per semester (we put forward a proposal for a new way of looking at workload that was quickly shot down), nor do we have total autonomy over the number of students per course. All that we do have control over are those "invisible" teaching duties that don't technically count within our workload. And so basically our ideas are all about very boring procedural departmental policy sorts of things, but that is our starting point. We're trying to find a way to make a statement (and to spread the work out around the department) without impeding our students. It's not an easy task.

But it's the only practical solution I've been able to think of regarding these issues, because seriously? I don't see any institutions (and definitely not my own) chomping at the bit to change. To reduce the expectation that faculty advise independent research projects, the number of courses that tenure-line professors teach, or the number of students per course in these bleak times of reduced budgets and with the threat of further cuts looming. Those things are clearly here to stay for the foreseeable future.

This is not to dismiss what TR calls for in her post, nor is it to disagree with it.** It's just to say that while I entirely endorse TR's rhetorical position, such positions don't do anything to change people's (my) working conditions, nor do they do anything to change (my) students' learning conditions. Right now? I'm more interested in practical strategies that might improve my student's ability to learn and my ability to teach them as well as I possibly can. And that involves boring policy work, not (really interesting, and really powerful) sweeping calls for change.

**Well, or I don't totally disagree with TR's post, but I do disagree with some parts of it. I do think that fewer than 10 students in a course can actually be a bad thing if there's a bad dynamic between the students. I also think that spending lengthy amounts of time reading and writing extensive comments on student papers is not generally a good use of one's time and won't typically or regularly produce better student writing across the board. This is born out by research in composition and rhetoric that basically reports that students are likely only to respond to around three main comments on a paper and to internalize them and to use them in future writing situations to improve their writing, and my experience, having done it both ways, has born this out. Reading/commenting quickly but with a purpose can often achieve much more than mulling over a student paper and responding at length. The issue is that faculty across disciplines need training to respond to student writing most effectively, which is a topic for another post. More time spent by the instructor does not equal more effective writing by students. If only that would solve students' writing issues, I'd gleefully spend hours reading their papers. But the fact is that this just doesn't work.

Must Stop Being Lazy

A winter storm's a-coming and I've got much writing to accomplish. I've done the necessary research, I've cleared my schedule, and really, if the weather is what they're predicting, I'm all set to hunker down. But I've accomplished nothing yet with my day, because I know that I really won't be doing much of anything this weekend. Dumb.

But so anyway, must start writing. Writing is easy. All you have to do in order to write is to write. Right?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How Soon Is Friday?


I have a to-do list a mile long, and let's just note that I can't make myself do anything today. I'm exhausted. I'm done. I'm pissed off and irritable and feeling overworked and underappreciated. Woe is me. And let's just note that It's only week 4.

If I can make it to Friday, I have high hopes that this weekend will offer ample time for me to rejuvenate and get myself back on track in some sort of fashion. Looking at things objectively, my life is really not so awful, but work has just been.... Ok, you know how people talk about how rewarding being a professor is? Well, most of the time, for me it is that. But there are also times (as in any job I know there are) where the work just seems harder, more stressful, more thankless, and more work than others. This is one of those times.

Luckily, one of my major service things of this year is over as of yesterday, so that is a good thing. And also luckily I'm teaching a book that I know backwards and forwards tonight, and another I know backwards and forwards tomorrow. And I'm getting my hair cut tomorrow, which will surely provide a boost. In other words, I need to stop whining and just make it through to tomorrow afternoon.

I also have tentative plans with BES tonight, and if those come to fruition, I think that will be a fun respite in my otherwise lame and stressful week, even though of course she's feeling very stressed and in need of an ear. I think it will do me good to help her with her stressful things as opposed to thinking about my own stressful things. Just like the bright spot in my day yesterday was meeting with a recent grad to help her think through her teaching presentation for Teach for America.

See, that's the thing: the things that are filling me with crankiness having nothing to do with teaching or with scholarship. Nor do they have to do with my personal life (such as it is). No, they have to do with all of the other bullshit crap that is my job. If I could just erase all of the bullshit crap, then things would be grand. The problem is, the "bullshit crap" is not eraseable, much to my dismay.

Ok, time for me to accomplish at least a few of the things on my list so that I'm not cranky when I teach this evening and so that I am a good teacher as opposed to a stressed and lazy one.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Literature, In the Classroom

Ok, so I'd written a novel-length comment to the last post, and then I stupidly closed the comment box instead of posting the comment. Don't you hate when that happens? I know I do.

But so I figured I'd do a post instead, given that the comment is lost and gone forever. Here's the thing. I love the conversation in the comments in response to that post, because the trajectory of the comments is all about saying what people like and don't like, making additions and subtractions and corrections and suggestions, and just generally entering the conversation about what counts as literature.

Guess what, folks? What's happening there is exactly what I strive to make happen in the classes that I teach. I think a version of the literature classroom that is about forcing students to read Books Educated People Should Have Read is entirely wrong. I think that it's wrong to force students to "identify" with a particular character, or to "like" a particular book, canonical or not. Seriously. I really think those things.

Maybe that's how I think because nearly all of the things that I have published on are things that I first (a) loathed, (b) resisted and loathed, or (c) didn't really respect as worthy of commentary (even if I liked those things). That's right. My life's work as a professor is based on writing about things (and also teaching things) that I initially disdained. I now love some (though not all) of these things, but what makes the study of literature interesting to me - as opposed to just reading some books, it's all about having the freedom to engage deeply with literature whether we like it or not, or whether we feel ambivalent about it. In fact, ambivalence may be the most awesome response, as it means that we are having a complicated aesthetic reaction.

But that's also the reason to study literature rather than just to read it on one's own. The point of a literature class is that it allows you to see things that you wouldn't see reading it on your own - if you got it all on your own, then you should just go the public library and be done with it. The point of taking an English class is that you're going to get more than you'd get on your own, even if you don't like some of what you get. This is a speech that I need to make in every general education class that I teach, and it's one that I've felt like making a lot in regard to various comments I've heard in the wake of Salinger's death. I can entirely get why somebody would think Salinger is useless if they just picked the book up on their own. I can also get why somebody would think Shakespeare is useless if they picked up his plays on their own, except that doesn't happen with Shakespeare, ever, because we make everybody read Shakespeare in school, and we teach everybody how to read him. I get why people think James Joyce is stupid when they've tried to read Ulysses without a net (i.e, an expert at the helm), and I get why people think that Erica Jong is stupid (even though she's really not) when she's rarely taught in a college classroom.

See, this is the whole point. Classes in English, or literature if we want to be more accurate, are about giving people the tools to read critically and about giving people the tools to get things with which they don't identify or don't in terms of their own personal tastes like. To read with a purpose, and to analyze, and to get it. They are not about just making people internalize the plots of "great books," or to give them a list of "great books" that they can say they've read, but rather about giving them the tools to actually read as they go on with their lives. If they like a "great book" along the way, that's fantastic, but that's not actually the point. The point is really to show them how to get the most they can out of the latest Dean Koontz or Danielle Steele novel that comes out.

I don't care really at all whether my students "like" the books I teach. I care that they engage with them - give them a chance, and give them respect. If they like some of them along the way, that's a bonus (and it does help with the "respect" thing). But studying literature isn't about liking. Just like studying biology isn't about "liking" cells.