Friday, January 29, 2010

Dr. Virago: International Woman of Mystery and Credit Card Debt

I'll be traveling to three foreign countries for professional activity in Summer 2010: Canada, the UK, and Italy. The first trip, at the end of May, is for the sake of medieval drama. The other two destinations will be part of the same month-long trip from the end of June to the end of July: first, to study the early modern book in England (in manuscript and print form) at the London Rare Books School; then, to do about a week and a half of research at the British Library; and then to go down to Siena, Italy, for the New Chaucer Society Congress.

I'm very excited about all of this. The Chester production and conference will feel like the capstone of many years of work on medieval drama, and I'm looking forward to spending a weekend watching theater groups from all around North America and the UK interpret and perform the cycle, as well as to hearing people present new research on the plays at the symposium. The European trip, meanwhile, is all about new avenues of my research into manuscript-oriented studies which, like the drama, cross the medieval-early modern divide. That research is still a little inchoate, in part because I'm largely teaching myself how to work in a set of new sub-fields, including manuscript and textual studies -- hence my attendance at the LRBS. It's also a move into new genres of literature (or rather, new genres for me to do work on) and for some reason I'm presenting on that work in progress at NCS, even though, as I said, the works is still rather inchoate. Ack! But still, I'm looking forward to NCS because, well, it's in Siena! I've never been to Siena or Tuscany, and besides the usual academic conference stuff, NCS - as usual - is offering excursions to villas and castles and working Benedictine monasteries! And a final dinner at a vineyard estate in the Tuscan countryside! How fabulous!

But of course, all of this is going to cost me a whole heckuva lotta money. Mucho dinero. Mega bucks. And all this right before I take a year's sabbatical (approval still pending) in which I'll be paid 2/3 of my usual salary. I'm squirreling away as much money as possible to pay for it all, especially for my sabbatical year. I'm saving, as usual, for ordinary summer living expenses (since we're paid only during the nine months of the academic year), but not just for summer 2010, but also for 2011. And then, in addition to that, I'll be putting into savings every stipend I've been awarded, every honorarium I've been given (for example, for being a peer-reviewer for a book manuscript), every monetary Christmas or birthday present I've gotten or will get, and all of my tax refunds. I've also agree to edit a number of texts for a forthcoming largish literary anthology, for which I'll be paid a flat sum, and that will be squirreled away, too.

I applied for travel funds to cover my costs for the Canadian trip, and I was allocated what I needed as long as I can travel in our production team's van and don't have personal transportation costs (although that may not work out), but I may be chipping in to cover some of the costs of taking our cast and crew there for our play in the production. We had originally signed up for a play with a small cast, but then found out we were also being assigned an episode from another play in the cycle -- for good scholarly reasons -- which more than doubled the cast members we need to take! Our theater department is still managing to cover most of it, although we may be the only group there that uses the technique of 'doubling' (one actor playing two parts) -- we'll see how well that works in open-air performances at multiple stations! But students might have to pay for food for themselves, and I'd like us all to go out and eat somewhere cool together at least one night there; I can't really expect poor students to pay for that themselves.

I've also applied for an internal summer fellowship that will cover the cost of the London trip and give me a month's additional salary. But that fellowship prioritizes junior faculty. Tenured faculty have gotten it in the past, and I think I wrote a good proposal that speaks well to people outside the humanities (I even called manuscript research our version of "field work"), but it's certainly not guaranteed. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

And since NCS is in the next fiscal year, I can apply for more regular travel funds for that, but whatever I get will be a drop in the bucket of the total cost, even if the London portion of the trip -- including the overseas flight -- is covered by the summer fellowship. So even if I get all the funds I'm applying for, I'll still have to carry some serious costs myself. And then next year, in 2011, I'm planning at least another month or so of research in UK libraries. Again, I'll apply for all available funds -- including some external ones this time, as I hope my project will be better defined by then -- but who knows if I'll get any.

Now, I'm not complaining here. Really, all I'm doing is a little financial planning in public. Because Bullock and I are DINKs (Dual Incomes, No Kids -- an acronym that never really took off, alas) in a city with a low cost of living, and because we don't live extravagantly (well, unless you count our taste in food and drink; or my penchant for the practical-but-cute, but also expensive, La Canadienne boots for winter; or the money we've spent on training, boarding, and grooming Pippi), I can afford to take a full sabbatical year and also make multiple trips out of the country. But I don't know what I'd do if we had kids or lived in an expensive area, or both, as many of my academic friends do.

And I guess I'm posting this as a kind of public record of what professorial life is like for the vast majority of us (or, well, in my field, anyway) -- those of us teaching at the less-than-elite colleges and universities. Many of my students are surprised to find out I'm not paid in the summer or that the research and conference trips I undertake aren't fully subsidized. I know most of my readers know these things, but my blog gets Google hits all the time (often misdirected ones....but still). So, if you're wondering, Do professors have their travel paid for? The answer is: usually only in part, and sometimes not at all. We get partial funding for one trip a year at my university. Do professors get paid in the summers? Usually, no, unless they've arranged the 9-month paychecks to be distributed over 12 months, or unless they're teaching summer school or they're a chair or a program director or other administrator. Do professors get paid while they're on sabbatical? Yes, but often not their full salary. At my university, it's 100% for a semester, 66% for a year. Your mileage may vary. And, in fact, I'm lucky that my university hasn't cut sabbaticals entirely -- as others in the state have done recently -- although they're being very stingy with them. Anyway, all of this means that we're often footing the bill for our own research expenses, especially in the humanities and social sciences, whether that means the time we need (summers and sabbaticals), or the travel we undertake for conferences and research. And don't forget, our job performance evaluations include research -- it's not just a hobby.

So, for the record, here's what I'm estimating the major expenses of these three trips will cost all together, at current exchange rates and fares, and using government standards for mileage costs and per diem (though I spend a lot less on food and incidentals that the per diems allow):

Travel to & from Toronto (if there's not room for me in the van or if scheduling doesn't work out): $300 (using IRS mileage rat)
Lodging in Toronto: $ 250 (if I stay in the dorms, which I probably will)
Toronto per diem: $555

Subtotal: $1105

LRBS Tuition: $886
Round trip flight to London: $1200
Lodging in London: $1500 (I've arranged a cheap university dorm room already)
London per diem: $3060

Subtotal: $6486

Round trip flight from London to Florence: $220
Lodging in Siena: $370 (if I share, which I'll likely do)
NCS registration, final dinner, and excursions: $435
Meals not provided: $300

Subtotal: $1325

Grand total: $8916

To put this in some perspective, that's more than 10% of my gross income when I'm not on a reduced salary. Of course, as I said, Toronto is covered, and I'll get something for Siena. If luck prevails, I'll get that summer fellowship, too, and if not, I've got money saved. And there are my credit cards (hence my post title). I actually haven't carried credit debt for more than few months at a time -- usually after trips like these -- since the third year of being a professor, when I finished paying off the $11,000 I still had from graduate school. (Though I still have about $28,000 student loan debt, much of which was taken out originally to pay off credit cards, swapping a higher variable interest for a very low, fixed one.) But I think after this summer it may take me awhile to recover.

Anyway, we're doing a better job of letting students know the costs of pursuing academic jobs -- the real costs and opportunity costs; the personal costs, as well -- but I thought I'd throw out some more data on the costs that continue to accrue, depending on your field and your area(s) of research, even if you do get the coveted tenure-track job. I often get the "must be nice" comments from non-academics and students when they ask what I'm doing with my summer, and it *is* nice, I'll agree, to spend a productive day in a manuscript library and then to walk "home" through Russell Square, or to spend five days in Tuscany with the world's experts in Chaucer and other late medieval English literature. But it's often partly or entirely at my own expense.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Team teaching is teh awesome!!1!!!

So I'm team-teaching a small seminar. We spent all summer and a little bit of fall planning this class because when you have to run everything by your co-instructor, everything takes twice as long. No, even longer -- it has an exponential effect, since the co-instructor might have to read something first to decide whether it will work in the class, or even if it's a simple question, they have to get your e-mail and respond to it. None of this deciding on your late-paper policy as you put the syllabus together at 2am the night before the first class business! I even wrote up a sketch of a lesson plan ahead of time for every day I'll be teaching this semester so that my partner won't be going in blind. And in this case we come from two different disciplines -- theater and literature -- so we do things differently, in terms of both our approaches to drama and to classroom policies, assignments, etc. That's supposed to be the *point* of team-teaching -- bringing these approaches together -- but it still makes the logistics more complicated. (If it sounds a bit like I'm dominant in the class, I am. But that's because he's directing a production related to the class, for which I'm the dramaturg, and so that's where he's the boss. And also, I've taught a class on the topic multiple times and he hasn't.)

But since neither of us had done this before, we weren't exactly sure how it was all going to come together, and in the first week of classes there was still some fine-tuning, especially since on those days we were sharing the time. (Starting this week we alternate days. More on the awesomeness of that in a minute.)

On the first day of class one of the students asked what the benefit of team-teaching was. We gave him some canned answers about interdiscplinarity and multiple points of view and learning from each other, since, after all, we hadn't done this before. But now, even after only three classes together, I can already see the benefits and the canned answers don't sound like empty boilerplate eduspeak any more. We are already learning from each other, and presumably the students are learning more from both of us than they would from just one of us. He's got a much broader knowledge of theater history than I do; I'm a medieval-early modern gal, and know England much better than the continent. That said, I have a deeper knowledge of the language, literature, and socio-economic culture of the period of English drama that we're studying. He's also a director and dramaturg, so he brings practical production knowledge to the class. In fact, that's our organizing principal for the class -- we're studying these plays in their historical contexts (textual, literary, social/cultural, and performance contexts) *and* thinking about how to perform them now. Although this is an oversimplification, I'm "then" and he's "now."

And it works beautifully together. Case in point: yesterday, I was getting students to notice the symbolic significance of movement and space in the play we were reading. And then I got them to talk about how bodies and physicality matter thematically to the play. And then we talked about gender. After class, my co-instructor noticed a way to connect the gender issues to the movement issues in a way I hadn't and it sparked his ideas for what he's going to do in class on Thursday.

And the fact that I have one less class to prep for Thursdays for most of the rest of the semester (except during tech week of the production, when I'll take over for my swamped co-instructor on both days) is suh-weet! But lest there's some troll out there thinking, "Hey, my tax money is paying her salary and she's not working!" let me remind you that we spent all freakin' summer (when we *weren't* paid) putting this all together. So the time was simply displaced. (Plus, I have plenty of other paid work to fill it, including putting together a handbook for department graduate directors, since I'll be on sabbatical next year and have, up until now, kept everything in my head. Yeah, not good. But that's a subject for another post.) And I still have to do the reading he's assigned for his days, and I still come to class, which I am looking forward to with great enthusiasm, for -- hooray! -- I get to be a student once a week! How fun!

But one of the coolest little surprises of the semester so far is that we have great co-teacher timing. We don't jump into each others' presentations or discussion leading often, but when we do, it reinforces what the other is doing. And we seem to have great dorky comic chemistry, too. (Yes, the students are laughing, too. Well, most of the time.) For instance, yesterday, we were discussing a play with a rather strange anal fixation. All or most of that embodiment I was asking the students to pay attention to kept coming back to the ass (or arse, actually -- it's an English play, after all). So we got to talking about farts and fart jokes in the play and one of the students wondered if it told us something about audience, on the theory that physical humor and "toilet" humor appealed only to the less educated. I gave the student my skeptical look and my co-instructor and I had the following exchange, totally deadpan:

Me: I like fart jokes. Fart jokes are hilarious. (looking at co-instructor) What about you?
Co-instructor: Love them. Can't get enough of them.
Me: And I have a Ph.D. And you?
Co-instructor: Me, too. Ph.D.
Me: But seriously....

And then I started giving a potted history of the fart joke in English literature (no, really) and talking about how the idea of "low" humor is a culturally contingent thing and how "less educated" is a difficult or different thing to talk about for the Middle Ages, anyway. And my co-instructor talked about farts on the stage up through the 19th century (no, really), including a French performer who used to perform entire songs via fart for wealthy and cultured audiences (seriously, not making this up). And we hadn't planned *any* of that. And yet the whole performance went off as if it was a well-practiced routine. It was awesome.

And that's the other thing that this class is doing for me: it's bringing my teaching energy back. In my other classes, even though I'm changing the content and the methods, as well as the assignments, all the time, it's still my shtick I'm doing. And frankly, I'm sick of me -- or classroom persona me, anyway. I *really* need that sabbatical I've applied for. (This, btw, is the great benefit of sabbaticals to *students*. We need a real break from teaching to keep it fresh and effective. Summers help, but they're too short to really recoup and by the end of them -- or in the case of the team-taught course, all through them -- we're thinking about teaching again.) After last semester I thought this one was going to feel like a death march. But the team-taught course is re-energizing me, and as luck has it, my Middle English course comes later in the day, so I can go into that a little more hyped up and enthusiastic. (Oh, and also, I seemed to have no problem students so far, knock wood -- not even the one I thought would be a problem.)

So if you have the opportunity to team-teach something, and it's in load (in my case, happily, it is) or you can handle the overload, I highly recommend it. Well, at least for now, in the second week of classes! I'll keep you posted if the honeymoon phase wears off!

Edited to add this PS: Also, my co-instructor is bigger hard-ass on deadlines, plagiarism, etc. I always try to present myself as one, but then I usually show mercy. So I don't pursue plagiarism to the dean, but give an F on an assignment. And I'll take a late assignment under conditions not listed on the syllabus. But not co-instructor! So yay! *He* can be bad cop!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The best professional moments of 2009

Since my last post had a little bit of the professorial gripe to it, and was also ridiculously long, I thought I'd counter that with a briefer post on what made me happy in my professional life in 2009. It's still the first week of 2010, so I'm still allowed to do a 2009 retrospective, right?

In our annual reviews, we have to categorize all the work we've done in the previous academic/fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) in the three usual categories of what professors do all day: teaching, research, and service. So I thought I'd give you my three most gratifying moments or element of 2009 in the same three categories.

Service is technically the smallest part of my workload (20%), and I definitely don't do as much as some people in the department. Most of my service work in 2009 was in three areas: serving on the committee that hired our most recent faculty member; serving on the department personnel committee; and being the director of graduate studies, which entails both service (administrative stuff) and teaching in the form of advising, and always poses problems for me when I'm trying to decide what part of my annual report to put its activities on. But this is my blog, so I'm counting my most gratifying moment as grad director in the service category. This year the associate chair proposed the idea to me of assigning one or two outstanding graduate student teachers to their own sophomore level literature course and we decided to do this through a competitive application process. So I was charged with drafting the application with the rest of the graduate committee. With their input, I put together an application that I think will not only give us a good way of assessing the proposed courses and the individual student's potential for success with it, but that will also teach all of the students something about course design, teaching portfolios, and job applications (that was the model) and give them materials to use if they apply for community college jobs after the MA. So I was pleased with the end product. And most gratifying of all, so was the rest of the faculty, including the composition faculty, who were worried that it would seem like we were "rewarding" students with a literature class over composition. In other words, I seem to have pleased everyone. Yay me!

My most gratifying "moment" in my research was actually, technically, a series of moments, but I'm still counting it as one: that is, the three very positive reviews that my book received in 2009. Even more gratifying was the fact that they were by scholars in three slightly different fields of late medieval literature: one works largely on gender and vernacular devotional literature (including the genre that's the subject of my book, but not exclusively); one works on literature and the social class that's part of the subject of my book; and the last one works specifically in the genre that was the subject of my study. Once again, I seemed to have pleased everyone -- or a range of someones, anyway.

I've actually saved the best for last, the most gratifying moment in my teaching. Oh sure, great reviews of one's book are *extremely* gratifying, but I'm pretty sure that over the course of my career I'll have more students than readers of my scholarship, so I'm going to rank teaching as the place where I could potentially have the most impact on the world, even though teaching and research are weighted the same in my workload - 40% each. The most gratifying moment in teaching was a small one, but it meant a great deal to me. Last spring I taught the "gateway" intro to literary study course for the major, which allows me to stretch myself and teach all sorts of cool texts beyond the medieval period, and I always make a point in such courses of including one or two relatively recent American works, or else my tendency might otherwise be to stick to British literature, medieval to Victorian. This year I ended the course with short stories, capped off with Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," as it originally appeared in The New Yorker. I'd never taught it or been taught it; I just decided to do it. We'd been talking a lot in class about the ways in which modern and post-modern fiction writers convey subjective points of view through narrative form, diction, imagery, and so forth, and that's largely what we did with this story. And I'd also been showing clips of movie adaptations of a lot of the texts I taught to talk about film as interpretation, and to show the formal changes necessary, as a way of drawing attention to the formal elements of writing. Anyway, I did this with "Brokeback," of course, showing the heartbreaking scene of Ennis visiting Jack's parents and finding his own shirt hidden inside Jack's in the closet. In doing so I think I indirectly steered us towards a discussion of the depiction of love rather than sex, of emotion rather than sexual desire. I didn't plan it very consciously this way, but I think that's what made the discussion so good. But it wasn't the discussion that day that was so gratifying -- though it was good and blissfully free of awkwardness. The moment came after class. One of my best students, who had taken a number of courses with me, came up to me and said that she didn't expect to like "Brokeback Mountain," and in fact, had expected to be offended by it because it conflicted with the way she was raised and with her religious beliefs. I was afraid that what was coming wasn't a "but" or "however," and braced myself, but I should have known better since this was a truly thoughtful and empathetic student. And indeed, she did say "but." She said that and more, that despite what she expected, she found herself deeply and powerfully moved by the story. It's really a compliment more to Annie Proulx than to me, but the student did thank me specifically for assigning the story and forcing her out of her comfort zone. I'm not really sure why this moment meant so much to me. Perhaps because it came from one of my "fans" who was simply telling me that she was still learning from me, even when it wasn't medieval literature. Or maybe because at its heart, I think that's what the value of a liberal arts college or university education in the traditional classroom is about: it's about the encounter with others.

So what were your most gratifying moments of 2009?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

When good classes go bad

OK, first of all...Damn, did I really write only 20 posts in 2009? Wow, that's really lame.

So let's start this last-day-before-I-must-start-work-in-earnest-again Sunday afternoon in a still new year (and new decade!) with a substantive post. And let's simultaneously make a resolution to write at least twice as many posts in 2010 as in 2009, which would still be many fewer than in each of the previous two years, but let's not get too crazy with the ambition.

And no, I don't know why I'm speaking in first person plural. I am not actually royal. There, now that I'm back in a singular state of mind, on with the actual post topic to which the title refers.

My Old English class sucked this year. It really bums me out, too, because it was so awesomely enrolled: 34 students! And Middle English is equally awesomely enrolled, and so I'm a little nervous about it because I think maybe that relatively large size was part of the problem. But also part of the problem was a critical mass of "difficult personalities" (probably my own included) which led to a sucking of the energy in the room and made the routine but necessary parts of the class seem duller than necessary. I want to break down what happened, perhaps go over what I might do differently next time, and also recount some of the successful emergency measures I took (perhaps too late), but first let me briefly recap the last three times I taught this course, which made the anxiety-dream-causing suckitude of this semester seem even worse by comparison.

Now, my first OE class didn't go particularly well, but I didn't actually have very high expectations because it was my very first semester as a tenure-track professor, the first time I'd taught any kind of language class (let alone one in my secondary field, in which I'd only ever had one graduate level course!), my first semester of teaching undergraduate/graduate courses, and my first semester in a new town at a new job. All that might have added up to a nightmare, but I was in kind of a "this is all hard" daze. Still, that class did have its difficulties and challenges. The two biggest problems were graduate students who really shouldn't have been admitted to the program. One ended failing all of her courses because she just wasn't prepared enough for graduate level work in English. (She was a non-traditional student who'd come from another, *entirely* unrelated field. We used to admit more of those, many of whom were pursuing the MA for pure pleasure -- and I don't knock that at all -- but too many of them floundered and so we're a little more skeptical of their applications these days. It's no joy to say "yes, come to our program" and then follow that with "sorry, you're failing our program," especially when we're taking their money, as they usually don't qualify for TAships.) The other seemingly did well enough in his other courses but he got an F from me for plagiarizing his final translation and annotated bibliography project. (Thanks to him I now give final exams in that class.) And like most plagiarizers, he did a smashingly stupid job of it, by plagiarizing the very text I'd partly modeled the assignment on, Corey Owen's hypertext edition of "The Seafarer." My student didn't know that I'd modeled my assignment on this work, but he should have known better than to steal directly from Owen's summaries of articles written in German, since my student didn't read German and yet there they were in the annotated bibliography with their German titles! D'oh! And what's more, I'd already pulled him into my office for plagiarizing someone's translation once before! So he knew I was on the lookout.

But what made the semester so torturous wasn't that these two students were struggling students or even than the one panicked and resorted to dishonesty; rather, it was their attitudes throughout, which culminated in both of their failures, and I imagine had a causal relationship to them. Student 1, the non-traditional student, performed poorly on everything, but in the beginning of the semester, she tried to seek help. I say tried because she initially came to me asking for tutor. When I explained that knowledge of Old English was pretty specialized and there really wasn't anyone around except me, and offered to set up an extra weekly meeting with her, she reluctantly accepted, but stopped coming after the second meeting. And she subsequently grew surlier and more disruptive in her behavior in class. Then one day she melted down. We were going around the room, going over the translation homework, and the guy before her had just given a particularly sound translation, and since he was someone struggling in the class, I gave him extra praise. And then she took her turn and read something truly unintelligible. "I'm sorry," I said gently, "that's not quite right..." But before I could get to the explanation, she burst out, enraged, "Why does HE get a 'YES' and I get a 'NO'?" It was really unnerving, especially since it was my first ever experience of such disruptive behavior in the classroom. I thought I handled it OK, saying very gently that it wasn't personal, but that her answer was empirically wrong -- for one thing, she made a very clear subject an object and vice versa -- and his was right, but that tomorrow it could be the opposite. Well, it seems she thought my frequent but gentle corrections of her were personal, because the next day I got a three-page, hand-written screed from her (slid under my office door) decrying how inhumanely I was treating her. (It turns out she wrote similar to letters to all of her other professors, whose classes she was also failing.)

Meanwhile, student 2 usually complained about something every day in class. He was also struggling, but concerned only with the effect of his struggle on his GPA. He, too, tried to come to office hours, but gave up. In his case it was less out of a paranoid sense that I was out to get him -- as in student 1's case -- and more out of a deep-seated lack of interest in the necessary intellectual work. He actually said to me in one office meeting, "Why do we need to learn this stuff, anyway? Hasn't it all been translated already?" *headdesk* He was the kind of guy who, even as an MA student, would ask "Is this going to be on the test?" Oy.

By now in this post you might think that *that* was my worst OE class ever. But it wasn't. It's definitely in second place, but it didn't bother me as much as the most recent class. As I said, I expected things to be hard, anyway. But also, every other student in the class was a joy to teach, and there was a cohort of smart, funny, geeky students who loved when I got excited about geeky linguistic stuff. And the class was small and intimate, and so the other dozen students easily communicated through body language and expressions that they sympathized with me and were equally frustrated with the two problem students. In the beginning they reached out to them and tried to help them, but they got no further than I did. A number of the engaged students later joined me for a Beowulf reading group the next semester, so it was also clear they were learning and interested. One of those students later went on to do an MA in Medieval Studies at York (after taking every class I ever offered while she was an undergraduate!), and she was the energetic center of the enthusiastic majority in that class.

The next two times I taught OE, the classes were composed mostly of students like the enthusiastic ones in the first class, and blissfully free of problem personalities. Like the first class, those classes enrolled about 15-18 students, and since many of them took both OE and ME, there was a high energy going into ME (that was also true of that first year of ME, since the two problem students failed OE). The second time I taught OE and ME, I taught them in the same semester, in the same room, back-to-back (because I'd been on leave the previous semester and certain students needed both classes, usually offered only every two years) and I took to showing goofy language-related YouTube clips or SchoolHouse Rock videos in between classes for edifying entertainment, a habit I carried into the courses two years later (though to do so I had to arrive to class early -- didn't want to use actual class time). OK, so some of the videos weren't exactly edifying, but one silly one -- the now somewhat infamous "Pork song" -- was at least inspired by a class conversation about "r-colored vowels." Just about every student from those last two classes is now a Facebook friend of mine, so if you're my Facebook friend and you've seen my status updates about the grueling OE class this semester, you've likely seen their comments bolstering my spirits. (And since a couple of them know about this blog and might be reading: thank you! That meant a lot.)

So what went wrong in this year's iteration? Well, for one, that huge enrollment turned out to be a problem. This is something that I learned (and that I did to myself) that needs to be repeated over and over to anyone who wants to raise course caps and replace small classes with large ones (whether with or without discussion sections): the same content taught by the same teacher will paradoxically not be the same course if the enrollment is doubled. It might not be a worse class, but it won't be the same. And in my OE class's case, it was definitely worse. Alright, so there are other variables involved, I know, but I can tell you that it was much harder for me to reach and engage and keep track of the performance of 34 students than it was to do the same for 15-18 students. There were more students who were struggling and there were more students who'd stumbled into a class that was over their heads. I tried to head this off at the pass by e-mailing the syllabus weeks before the term started, but our students don't drop classes. (Or perhaps they didn't read the syllabus carefully.) This time, one of the struggling students at least did actively seek out extra help, and this time, having had three cohorts of OE students, many of whom are still in the area and seeking work, I was able to rustle up a tutor for said student.

But even with a tutor working with that student on the side, my student still came to my office hours every week. On the one hand, I'm glad she didn't give up like the two the first year, but on the other hand, she sapped a lot of my energy, and I needed that energy to deal with the rest of the class. Meanwhile, there were three undergraduate students with strange, disruptive behavior. One missed about half of the semester, either by missing a whole class or else by coming in extremely late, sometimes 45 minutes late! I could see this and it was clear the students in the back of the room, nearest the door, were distracted by it, as they took to keeping track of when she arrived. And when she was in small groups she wouldn't speak to the other students. At all. Strangely, though, she would sometimes speak up in whole class discussion, so I don't think it was real shyness. And on more than one occasion, when it came around to her to translate a line from the homework, she wouldn't have it prepared, in which case she'd just stare at me silently. And yet she'd come up to me after class -- after not having been there half the week -- and argue for fractions of points on graded assignments.

Then there were two other students who had the opposite problem: they didn't know when to stop talking. They both had a version of what I've heard parents of small children call "interruptitis." One of them would most often interrupt me; the other would interrupt me or other students. The first would argue with me when I was trying to explain why her translation wouldn't quite work tonally or stylistically or logically. Often she wouldn't let me explain what wasn't quite working with her translation; she'd interrupt and argue. These were often issues less concretely wrong or right than the situation that inspired the outburst from student 1 in the first year, but in each case, there was still something wrong and I knew that from my knowledge and the authority of many other scholars and translators, which she either didn't realize I had or didn't seem to accept. It wasn't always transparently clear why what she did was wrong, but she didn't wait for my explanation. She seemed only to want me to say "yes, your version is acceptable," rather than to learn why it wouldn't quite work. And in arguing at all, she delayed class for no good reason, because in each case there was nothing at stake or it was something peculiar to her translation and not common to the class. What I've learned from this is that I need to learn to say more quickly, "That might take me too long to explain and we need to move on, but I'd be happy to discuss it in office hours" or "Did anyone else come up with the same result? If so, let me explain to you all why that's most likely not going to work." Or just to say, "Give me a minute to think of a way to explain that to you," because honestly, sometimes it was something I knew but hadn't articulated yet to myself. On top of that, she'd also sometimes correct me spontaneously, interrupting me in mid-sentence as she did so. She did occasionally catch a slip of my tongue -- the class was so wearying that I sometimes had bouts of mild aphasia, where I'd flip terms (strong for weak, for example) -- but usually I'd catch myself a split second later, so I didn't really need her. Honestly, I'm usually appreciative of a correction, but not unnecessary ones. If that had been the only problem in the class, it might not have rubbed me the wrong way, but combined with everything else, it was a major irritant. And she also had a seemingly condescending tone every time she did this, although later I decided that she was actually pretty uniformly affect-less, even when she was talking about something she was supposedly enthusiastic about, so about two thirds of the way through the class I started getting irritated a little less. I also managed her and the rest of the class better. More on that a little later. Apparently she also did the same thing -- the seemingly condescending, spontaneous correction -- when other students were talking, but only the students around her heard that, because she kept it sotto voce. But that was irritating them so much that they started dreading class and it affected the atmosphere.

That was on one side of the class room. Meanwhile, on the other side, something similar was going on. Another student there had a similar kind of academic Tourette's, interrupting me and blurting things out at inappropriate moments. But hers bothered me less at first because it didn't seem laced with bad attitude; rather, she seemed to me to be bubbling over with enthusiasm. But then she, too, started correcting other students. Or sighing or snorting. And by the end of the semester, when we got to the literature and the discussion, she'd respond to my questions by starting with such locutions as "Well, you have to understand..." And then she'd say something totally wrong, or at least ill informed. (Often it was out of date blanket stereotypes of the Middle Ages, or a confusion of the content of the literature with the life of the day. I think she might have been home schooled or at least an autodidact in my field. She was a big Tolkien fan and might have just decided to start reading what he'd read. She'd clearly read a lot, but had no real guide to what she'd been reading.) Of course, I'd correct her, gently, which sometimes got snickers from her classmates who were less patient with her outbursts, and she'd look crestfallen (clearly not realizing she did the same to them). She also had a tendency to call herself, out loud, "stupid! stupid! stupid!" when she missed so much as a point on a quiz, which was hard to take in its own way.

And then, on top of all of this, there was one of my best grad students, who has an unfortunate habit of sighing audibly when he's frustrated. And he, like me, was frequently frustrated in this class, as were many of the other students. Furthermore, as in many of the former iterations of the class, there were a lot of high-performing but neurotic students, who radiated a lot of nervous energy even under the best circumstances. But add that to the powder keg of the difficult personalities, and you've got a lot of extra strain and stress.

The combination of all of this sucked the energy out of the room. I and many of my best students dreaded coming to class. Showing students paradigms of verbs and such isn't the most exciting thing in the world in the first place, but in most iterations of this class I at least brought energy and dorky enthusiasm to it. Even without the difficult personalities, I think the bigger class size brought the energy level down. When students are five rows away, you're lecturing, not showing or discussing or explaining. I think this semester, in Middle English, I'll make myself move around more to combat that. In Old English, I did a lot more small group work than I might have otherwise done to get one on one with students, but in much of the semester, too many of the struggling students or the ones with clashing personalities were grouped together simply by virtue of the geography of the room. So finally, about half way through the semester, I spent a few hours making a group assignment chart, being sure to keep apart students I knew didn't get along, and making people move across the room to meet people they hadn't met before. I put one of each of my smartest, best performing, and also most confident students with each one of the two interrupters, so that they'd see that they weren't the only ones quick on the uptake. (Indeed, the median and average grades in the class were consistently As. I had a lot of high-performing students and then a significant drop off to the struggling students -- another problem of the class, I think.) I stopped using my old method of going around the class and having each students translate a line or two -- which works fine in a small class -- and had students in small groups compare their translations to mine, note meaningful differences, and try to teach each other where they went wrong. In other words, I took myself in person out of the equation for a little while (though obviously my authority was still there in the translation). Of course, I'd go around to each group and I'd answer questions as they came up. And since I'd carefully designed the groups, I made sure to put students who I knew could teach each other well in each group. Having done this, the last third of the semester was much more pleasant than the first two thirds. Plus, by that point, we were done with the crash course in the grammar and syntax and on to the literature, which also made things more fun.

Looking back, I think I learned from that class something about how to manage people. It took me awhile, but the assigned groups did eventually solve some of the major problems. And they worked happily together, so I seem to know something about what personalities will mesh and which won't. But I wished I'd learned it faster. And I wished I'd learned faster all of the things I've suggested above that were going wrong and were in my control. But I do think a lot of it was just the bad luck of bad chemistry. We'll see how much of this shows up in my evaluations (or, how many perceptive students will realize that it was less about the class content and me and more about the chemistry).

But one thing I'm thinking about changing is the way I assess the students. For three iterations now I've been using quizzes, following by translation assignments, followed by a final exam. I'm thinking of swapping the quizzes for homework, which means I'd have to change the final exam, too (or maybe just get rid of any big capstone project entirely -- just add more short translation work or other short assignments). Whether I use Jambeck and Hasenfratz's book or Baker's book, both now have fill-in-the-blank or sentence translation assignments (the former in their book, the latter on his website) and I could use those for both graded and ungraded homework. I could also use Michael Drout's website King Alfred's Grammar, although I'd probably do so in conjunction with Baker. The idea behind the paradigm quizzes was that students needed to have the basic structure of the language at their fingertips, and would then only need to refer to the grammar paradigms later when necessary to check their work or when memory failed. In other words, it was about approaching some basic fluency. Admittedly, it was an old-fashioned approach, the way I'd been taught both Latin and Old English. But I don't think that really worked in such a short class or with a larger group. (With the smaller, more self-selecting groups, it worked fine.) I think perhaps it might be better to concentrate on how the structure works in action, in sentences and short passages. I tried that the first time I taught the course, and it didn't really work -- and it was those students who suggested that I institute quizzes -- but I think it was more in the details of how I did it than in the larger concept. I also think that the move from quizzes to translation in this most recent class actually inspired some of the more annoying personality issues, because we'd moved from assignments that were black and white (you either knew the dative singular for a strong masculine noun or you didn't) to the more nuanced practice of translation, which starts with grammar and can have elements that are wrong or right, but also has more interpretative elements, some of which are more arguable than others. I taught a lot of that debate -- especially some of the more famous critical cruxes in the poetry -- but many issues were less up for debate and more a matter of students' inexperience, and that unnerved a lot of the students. In other words, I think I accidentally did a bait and switch on them, and I'm sure that contributed to the weirdness of the course's chemistry. Middle English is a very different course, and I use writing and translation assignments in that class -- no tests -- so I expect some of these structural problems to disappear. Also, some of the most difficult personalities won't be in it. But I'm still stealing myself for the large class and what new weirdness it brings with it.

OK, I have babbled on for long enough. Anyone who has any suggestions for how to manage a class of difficult personalities, or how to effectively teach Old English or another 'dead' language (i.e., where conversational fluency is not the goal), have at it in the comments. I'll probably need your advice for Middle English.