Wednesday, October 31, 2007

If you were interested in literary theory, where would you do a Ph.D.?

Hey everyone, thanks for all the comments, suggestions, and good wishes in the last post. I've been meaning to respond but, as you might guess, I've been busy putting out fires. I'm hoping to write a follow-up post on issues raised in the comments and also at other people's blogs, especially on the point of who we should (or shouldn't) be encouraging to go to grad school in the humanities (or whether we should be encouraging at all).

Anyway, in the meantime, I've got a query from a smart undergrad student who came to one of our recent "applying to grad school" workshops (to those commenters who suggested doing this: we were already in the process of doing this -- great minds think alike!). Actually, it's two queries. The first one is the question in the post title: if you were interested in literary theory, where would you apply to do a Ph.D.? I can think of some places off the top of my head, but they're all pretty competitive big guns, so ideally I'd like to suggest to this student some smaller programs that have maybe a 1 in 4 acceptance rate, rather than a 1 in 10 rate.

And here's the related question: do you think a student who started at a community college and then went to a regional public 4-year university is handicapped when applying to Ph.D. programs? This student is whip-smart and I have no doubt that he's got the chops for grad school, but I wonder if snob factors will hurt his chances. That's why I want him to apply to a range of programs.

And I'd love to hear narratives or be pointed to blogs from people who started at CCs and now are in grad school or beyond.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Help! I don't want to be grad director any more


One of the reasons I haven't posted much of late is that I've been running around like the proverbial acephalous farm fowl trying to deal with one graduate student related thing from another. Some of it's routine but nevertheless time consuming and potentially stress-inducing, and some of it is all about dealing with grad student nightmare situations. Here's a quick run-down that gives you a sense of my last two weeks without, I hope, revealing any sensitive particulars.

  • I scared one of our part-timers away from our program. I feel completely responsible for this since a) I'm the grad director, and b) the only two classes he's taking are my classes. The real problem, I think, is that the two classes are not literature classes (one's research methods, the other's Old English), so he based his conclusion that "graduate study in English is not for me" on rather idiosyncratic courses. I feel really guilty about this. Of *course* in the research class I've been talking about the why's and how's of academic research 24/7, but I've also told them more than once that the teaching/research balance is different at different kinds of institutions. But this particular student dropped out because he wants to teach more than do research. Argh! I tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
  • Another student stopped coming to his classes and has also decided to withdraw from the program, which is probably the right decision for him. But the problem is he thinks he can go on being a TA for the rest of the semester and collecting his stipend check. Theoretically, I think he's right, and if we saw TAs as employees and treated them as such with all the attendant legal rights, that would be the case: he'd do his job and we'd pay him for it. But our university, like most, sees a TAship as financial aid, for which only full time students are eligible.
  • The withdrawal of the student above leaves me with an unfilled TAship for next semester, which will mean the College will suck the line back up into itself, giving us one fewer TA line for next year.
  • Another student has decided to leave the literature concentration for the other concentration we offer. That's fine -- at least he's still "ours" in the larger sense, since all of our students get MAs in English. But the problem is that program is less flexible in its course sequence, so he has to take next semester off and restart in the fall. So I have his TAship to fill in the meantime or lose it, as well. (He'll get a different one next year, vacated by a graduating person.)
  • It's Ph.D. program application time and a few of our "good for us but not stellar" students have delusions of grandeur. I tried as best as I could to get them to apply to fewer extremely competitive programs and more programs with higher acceptance rates. They have no idea of their worth in this market. I think I'm being so gentle with their fragile egos that they don't get it and they'll just end up disappointed. And some of them are so freakin' arrogant without reason and they have no idea how they're coming across. I cringe to think of how their personal statements read. They have no clue and it's making me tear my hair out.
  • And those are the ones who tell me what they're up to. Half the time our students do this all behind the scenes and I never know where they're applying and/or getting in. And who knows what they're putting in their personal statements. I'm going to run a personal statement workshop ASAP just to get them to let us see the damn things. I mean, how can I help shape the reputation of our program if some of our graduate students are doing god knows what.
  • And all of our students think they're shoo-ins for the local flagship. Um. As if. It happens to be a top tier program with about a 1 in 10 acceptance rate, and in recent memory not a single one of our applicants, even our best students, have gotten in there. The phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" comes to mind. But they think because they're residents of the state that makes a difference, or because they took undergrad classes there (not, mind you, finished a degree there) they have an edge. I can't get it through their heads that state universities can be as competitive and selective at the graduate level as an Ivy League and none of that stuff matters. Indeed, some of them would prefer students from elsewhere than from their own state because it adds to their prestige. I think I may just ban students from applying there. OK, I can't do that. But I might tell them the above.
  • Which reminds me: our undergraduates don't understand that even *our* program is somewhat selective. This is because at the undergraduate level we're an open enrollment university, so all of the problems in the above bullets and here are the result of many students never having had to apply anywhere selective before and not knowing anything about the process other than maybe what they see in movies or on TV. (A number of our MA students were our BA students.) So sometimes tears, anger, resentment, and pleading are involved when someone is rejected. And often I have to deal with it in person!
  • And then there's the MA exam. I hate it. I hate dealing with it; I hate its format; I hate its reading list. But mostly I hate dealing with the students who complain the loudest about it, because they are always the ones who don't get what it's for and don't prepare well and don't do well. And there's really no excuse for not preparing well now or not getting it, because now almost all of our students have gone through my research methods class, where I also spend time on the culture of graduate school, and have them read all sorts of stuff about what typical MA/Ph.D. programs are like, and how most include some sort of comprehensive exam. I talk about how to prepare for it, including working in study groups and using the range of skills and expertise of their peers. And I talk about how to make it professionally useful beyond the instrumentalist goal of doing well on the exam. And I talk about how independent work is expected of graduate students and the exam represents part of that independent work. And still I get students who fear and doubt their ability to read something "hard" on their own (and so they skip much of the medieval and early modern part of the list and then claim they are "blindsided" by having to answer a question on those texts). Or they complain that they didn't have a chance to write on a bunch of the texts on the list, so they couldn't show off what they know (uh, you're supposed to know the whole list!). Or else they ask what was the use of their having read those other texts? And they complain that the list is too long, when it's actually shorter than the other "comprehensive" lists out there, and only longer than those exams that change the key texts every year.
  • And my colleagues aren't any less troublesome. Last year when I started a discussion about revising the exam they successfully put me off with misdirection. (Because I am so easy to manipulate. I'm an idiot sometimes.) But not this time! This time I found the history of the last discussion, when the exam was fully revised 5 years ago, and in it the faculty agreed -- they voted on this! -- to revise the exam at least every five years or when new literature faculty were hired. Ha! It's been five years *and* they've hired me and Milton, and both of our areas are underrepresented on the list. And I've got bits and pieces of 5 years worth of data for assessment -- questions written and answered -- to determine if this exam is doing what we think it should. So ha! We ARE going to have this discussion whether my colleagues like it or not.
  • And then there's the horrible way we exploit our TAs which I want to do something about, if not with more money, then with reduced or better managed workload, but I need the help of our composition people, and the chair, and we need to fight it out with the dean of the grad school for the money to do what we want to do. And given the desires of the current administration we might face tremendous resistance, which the composition people and the chair know full well, so they're not exactly eager to get cracking on it. It's all so wearying. Meanwhile, the students look me in the eye and say things like, "I can't afford internet at home, since I can't live on my TA stipend, so I couldn't complete this assignment." I have no idea how to respond to that. We actually do have a hardship fund in the department, and I tell them about that. But then what? It's not like I pulled a bait and switch on them -- the stipend amount is advertised and I tell them what it is in their acceptance letter. Like most things in this profession, it assumes the person holding it is young and single or, if they have a family, there's someone else taking care of them. And yeah, it sucks. Big time. I know that. But I don't control that. I'm trying to do something about it, but it probably won't result in more money. There just isn't much of that to go around, especially not to the humanities and the grad programs. Our priorities are not the university's priorities. But I think grad students, since they deal mostly with their department, assume that the department controls all of the things that affect the students' lives. I know I assumed that.
  • Of course, it doesn't help that I'm not yet tenured. I'm a little tentative when faced with dealing with administrators. That's why I need the help of my senior colleagues to do what I want to try to do, and they're all a little more weary of trying, with good reason. It's really discouraging.
  • And if one more of the non-traditional students condescends to me and acts like they have some kind of seniority over me (most of them are my age or, at most, 2-3 years older; leaving aside the fact that I'm a decade and a half older in academic years), or tells me I just don't know what their life is like I will freaking scream! The women are the worst. I swear next time it happens I'm going to say, "Oh, I don't know what it's like to be treated like I don't matter and don't have expertise or experience or authority? Really? Because I thought that's exactly how you're treating me right now!"
  • And finally, I had a small-group implosion in one of my classes this week. I blame them somewhat for not being grown ups and dealing with it, but I also blame myself. I stupidly assigned the non-traditional-student, pulling-herself-out-of poverty, single-mom-of-pre-schoool-aged-kids and one of the straight-out-of-college, 20-something-bachelor guys to a group together. Recipe for disaster. He didn't understand the limits on her time. She wielded them like a sledge-hammer over him. They're both bad communicators; he's the shy, quiet, studious guy who prefers to avoid confrontation than to solve problems and she's the fierce type who makes everything into a confrontation and bullies her way through life. Good one, Dr. V. I'm an idiot.
I'm exhausted. This really does take up the course release I get and then some. (God, imagine if we still had our Ph.D. program!) I'm staying on next year for sure, and maybe 2009-10, but then I'm applying for sabbatical for the next year, and so that might be a good time to put someone else in my place, and not just for the year.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Relax: let the movies explain it all to you

[Update: See Richard Scott Nokes's blow-by-blow account of one of the "activities" of this promotional item here. And he found the PDF of the poster online, so if you want, you can read the whole thing here.]

So yesterday in my campus mail I got a promotional poster/lesson plan (Meets National Standards! it says) for Beowulf the Movie. It urges me to let the fine folks at Paramount help me introduce a "classic of English literature" to my students. It has "activities" for K-12 and discussion questions for high school and college classes. I've got to scan part of this and post it here because it's too freakin' hilarious and troubling at the same time. One of my students, by the way, was outraged and offended that they'd send such a thing "to a specialist!" And it does seem that they sent it to me precisely because I'm a medievalist.

But aside from the whole problem of "Just show the movie -- they'll like it more!" issue, or the issue of the conflation of film adaptation and poem, I got fascinated by the "character description" of Grendel on this thing. They tried really hard to do an old-fashioned, 8th-grade level "character sketch" for him, which is funny in and of itself. But the weird bit was the "origin" section, which said Grendel was the offspring of Hrothgar and a succubus (a half-woman, half-demon, they said). Isn't that the same "back story" that the Beowulf and Grendel movie gave Grendel? Or no, wait, was it that Hrothgar and Grendel's human dad were friends and Hrothgar raised Grendel as a foster-dad? At any rate, I'm fascinated by the fact that both films need to give some cause-and-effect explanation for Grendel's murderous rage, a la a slasher film villain's motivation. Why? Doesn't that domesticate him a bit? Isn't he scarier without motivation other than his seething hate?

I had a similar experience when I watched the 13th Warrior* with a screenwriter friend (not the famous one, for those who know). This friend couldn't understand where the Grendel-inspired creatures were "coming from" (in the motivational sense) and found it a flaw in the film that there was no motivation for them. Given that Crichton (author of Eaters of the Dead, the basis for the movie) and the screenwriters had made Grendel into a race of proto-homo-sapien wild men, I thought it was pretty clear that they were supposed to express some atavistic quality in humanity or some primal element that we weren't as evolved from as we thought (much as Grendel and his mother work in the poem itself), but that wasn't enough for my friend, who needed a reason, preferably with psychological motivation to it.

Everyone wants to explain why bad things happen to good people, and to say that the things that go bump in the night have some logical explanation (even when it is a murderous monster). But the scariest works of literature and film -- including Beowulf the poem -- are the ones that realize our most irrational nightmares have great impossible truth to them.

*This is currently still my favorite movie inspired in part by Beowulf's plot, not counting the Beowulfian elements of Lord of the Rings. But I'm much more a fan of The 13th Warrior than Eaters of the Dead, which also has too much of that need to be deadeningly explanatory.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I may not post very often, but I give gifts

Update 10/20 10:30 am -- All gifts from me are now claimed, but the following folks now have to "pay it forward" so you might want to pay them a visit if you want a gift (though a couple of them have fairly locked/friends-only LiveJournals):

History Geek
Heu Mihi (Age of Perfection)

Update 10/18 11:21 pm -- 1 gift left!
Update 10/18 6:28 pm - 2 gifts left!

So there's a meme-ish thing going around the interwebosphere right now, which I saw at Academic Cog. It goes like this:

By the end of the calendar year, I will send a tangible, physical gift to each of the first five people to comment here. The catch? Each person must make the same offer on her/his blog.
I will send you something that speaks of Rust Belt, its industries, and its history, which may sound not very lovely, but in the case of my female readers, I already know what I'm going to get and I swear to you no one fails to dislike this gift. (And it's not prone to rust, I swear.) For any guys among the first five posters, I'll have to think of something else, but I'll come up with something good. We have very good local attraction gift shops here.

Caveats and disqualifications: Bullock, Fast Fizzy, and Virgo Sis (and any other potentially lurking family members and also dear friends who get twice-yearly boxes o' goodies) are not eligible since I already get you gifts. If you want a gift and I don't already know your real-life identity and address, you'll have to e-mail me with it!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Because I haven't posted in awhile...

...I'm posting a quiz. I'm also posting it because I got my first hate mail from a "concern troll" who thought that erudite professors like me shouldn't waste our educations with posting fluff on our blogs.

So, where are *you* in the Time-Space-Humor continuum?

Your Score: the Wit

(66% dark, 38% spontaneous, 15% vulgar)

your humor style:

You like things edgy, subtle, and smart. I guess that means you're probably an intellectual, but don't take that to mean pretentious. You realize 'dumb' can be witty--after all isn't that the Simpsons' philosophy?--but rudeness for its own sake, 'gross-out' humor and most other things found in a fraternity leave you totally flat.

I guess you just have a more cerebral approach than most. You have the perfect mindset for a joke writer or staff writer.

Your sense of humor takes the most thought to appreciate, but it's also the best, in my opinion.

You probably loved the Office. If you don't know what I'm
talking about, check it out here:

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Jon Stewart - Woody Allen - Ricky Gervais

The 3-Variable Funny Test!

- it rules -

Link: The 3 Variable Funny Test written by jason_bateman on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Btw, I really, really wanted to take the Genghis Khan Genetic Fitness test, if only because I thought it might amuse the Pastry Pirate, but alas, it's no longer an active quiz.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Calling all Anglo-Saxonists - help!

So I just taught my Old English students about syncopation, assimilation, and i-mutation in strong verbs this week, and I came across something that confused me.

I thought that i-mutation only happened in short/light syllable environments -- where the root word has a short vowel + consonant, followed by an i or j in the prehistoric form. (Am I wrong?) But then why does the Class 6 strong verb 'standan' show i-mutation in its 2nd and 3rd person singular present forms (at least in the book I'm using): stendest or stenst, and stendeþ or stent(t)? I guess the real question is, where did that -n- come from, since it's not in the past tense (then or now). It's not gemination, which I know happens in this class, but what is it?

If you can help this Middle English person out, she'd be grateful. And my students will be interested to know the answer, too, since they were also curious about all the way that "standan" is weird.