Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I may not be writing frequently here, but...

...I wrote something over here. It's not exactly new content, but it's something.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What counts?

I'm on my department's personnel committee (DPC), which is the committee responsible, among other things, for evaluating our colleagues' annual merit in the big three areas of professorial activity: teaching (which also includes advising, directing theses, and that sort of thing); professional activity (a huge category and a large part of the subject of this post); and service to the department, the college, the university, the profession, and, at our public university, the community (this is anything from doing things like serving on the DPC to being on faculty senate to organizing a professional conference to serving as a peer reviewer for a press or journal to judging a public speaking contest for the region).

If find that my students, even my graduate students whom I've beaten over the head with lessons in 'how the profession works' in my research methods class, are often surprised to learn that we're "graded." They shouldn't be, because of course all professionals have some sort of review practice, but I think the surprise comes in part from that myth of the professorial life, that we all get to do our own thing with little oversight. While it's true that on a day to day basis, we manage most of our own time (we generally don't pick the time slots and classrooms for our courses, though) and pursue the professional activity we want (ideally, but the limits on that are part of the topic of this post), and request (note: *request*) the courses we'd like to teach and pursue that teaching in the ways we see fit, at least once a year the chickens come home to roost and we have to show what we've been up to. And then we get graded for it. In my institution, we get graded on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest, in the three categories mentioned above, and then those scores are weighted by a set of percentages that we determined in consultation with the department chair a whole year before, and voila -- we get a final score that determines what tiny merit raise we'll get, *if* there is a merit raise in the current contract. (And in case you're wondering, my percentages are 40% teaching, 40% professional activity, and 20% service, so when someone tells me my "job" is to teach, I can accurately say, "No, that's only 40% of it," though in reality it takes more time.)

Anyway, having been on the DPC for the past two years, I find that the question of what counts for each of the big three categories is a contentious and vexed question. It matters only slightly in terms of the monetary rewards for it (though those tiny raises do have exponential value since they add to one's base pay for subsequent raises), but I think it matters a great deal in terms of how one defines a department, an institution, and a field or discipline. Our department, like those at a lot of smaller institutions, includes people in a variety of fields and disciplines. We have literary scholars of all kinds, creative writers, linguists (including applied linguists who work on issues of second language acquisition), and rhetoric and composition specialists. Even on this level the kinds of "professional activity" that counts has to differ. Poets don't necessarily do peer-reviewed scholarship (unless they are also literary scholars, which of course, can be the case), and some of the linguists and rhet-comp people are in fields where journal articles are the norm of scholarship, and rarely books. Meanwhile, the rhet-comp people and the applied linguists work in fields where their "professional activity" and their "teaching" and sometimes also their "service" overlap in substantial ways because often the subject of their expertise is the classroom and the way people learn to write or learn a language there. So when they give a talk to new faculty about pedagogy, is that teaching or service? If they get a grant for revising the composition curriculum, is that teaching or professional activity? For that matter, I have a hard time separating my graduate student advising from my graduate director administrative service -- what activities go under what categories?? To some extent, debate over these issues can be resolved by simply going with how the person in question listed the activity on their annual report, where we have to account for the last year's activity in those distinct categories. But then what happens when two different people list similar activity in different ways and it affects their scores significantly?

Oy. It's enough to make your head spin, and that's before you get to some of the thornier issues. There's long been debate in our department over what counts for professional activity and how much it counts, particularly when someone starts publishing in a new field, a field that was not part of the advertisement for the job they were hired for, or that was not part of their letter of offer (no matter how long ago that may have been). Say, for example, we hired a Romanticist 15 years ago and now that Romanticist has been publishing quality poetry in serious places, and that poetry was part of the reason why he was a Romanticist in the first place and informs his approach to Romantic poetry? Or say that he still teaches all the Romantic lit classes, but publishes poetry exclusively and has let scholarship in Romantic lit slide. Or say I decide I'm more interested in popular culture medievalism and start publishing on that. Or my interested in gender studies and masculinity leads me to write about post-medieval masculinity. Or heck, let's take a more likely example from my own work -- what if I start publishing on 16th century texts (traditionally that's the Renaissance/early modern period)? Now I know that some of the texts that I've already published on are technically or arguably or theoretically part of the early modern period as well as the medieval period, and so such a move would be a pretty logical outgrowth of my scholarship and expertise. But would my colleagues see it that way? Should any of these above hypothetical examples count for professional activity?

Some of my colleagues would adamantly say no. In fact, they find such professional turns deeply vexing and troubling. I don't agree and see such objections as being serious breaches of academic freedom. Now, on some practical level I can see why this would be a problem in a Ph.D. granting department, where you need experts in a given field to teach and advise the students admitted in that field on the assumption that yes, you do have a specialist in that field. But if said specialist starts devoting all her research time to another field, she's not really keeping up with the first field and so really isn't the best adviser for students who are themselves supposed to be becoming experts in that field. But we're not a Ph.D. granting department; we're an M.A. granting department, and our M.A.s don't come here to work with a given person, and they usually have a wider range of academic interests. Breadth suits their needs and their level better. And it's not a problem of a field-switch leaving us with a gap. We have some serious gaps in our faculty even without someone moving from one field to another; really, someone doing that is just shifting the gap, not creating one. Someone who seriously shifts fields has a wider range of teaching possibilities, and that's a good thing for us. And if they're doing serious work in their new field, then that's a measure of their expertise in it. Some of our colleagues keep going on about whether or not someone has "training" in something, but if you're "training" in your original field was 30 years ago, that training doesn't matter. It's all about being current in a field, and if you can get peer-reviewed publications in the top journals and presses your new field, or if serious creative writing outlets are publishing your poetry or fiction, then I say that's a measure of your "training." I have a bigger problem with faculty who think they can teach, especially at the senior or MA level, in any damn field they want. I think any of us can do the intro-level courses, but I think our students benefit from expertise in upper-level classes, and that's especially true for those students who we want to "Master" the field. I also think we endanger our chances of being able to hire someone in a field if we let someone not in it teach its courses. But then, as I've suggested, publications in that field are, for me, a sign of that expertise. Finally, we're not a high visibility institution, and in my view, anyone producing quality professional work (whether scholarly or creative) in quality outlets of professional standard in that sub-field, is bringing our department and university visibility, and so it's all good.

Frankly, I just can't see the big deal about this field switching in our context. And I also think it demarcates arbitrary divisions in the discipline that could potentially be harmful. I think as a larger discipline of modern language and literature we've too forcibly and artificially divorced the serious study of literature from creative writing, the study of language from literature, and the study of rhetoric and writing from traditionally defined "literature." I see the effects on our students when they can't tell me what's odd about the opening sentence of Jane Eyre, an otherwise first-person narrative that was originally published as an "autobiography" "edited" by Currer Bell: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." I see it when I do the whole "what is literature? what is literary study?" song and dance in my grad research class, and despite all my moves to the contrary, they conclude by insisting that they can say this is literature and that is not and that it's an objective quality held in the thing itself. Or heck, such a stark claim for what is literature and what is not threatened to derail a whole day's discussion in an NEH Institute I attended, as at least one of my occasional readers will no doubt remember, so it's not limited to first year graduate students anxious to define what they "have" to know.

I also think that such bounded thinking in evaluating professional work -- this counts for your professional activity; that does not -- replicates a behavior that drives me nuts across the profession: it's all about acting just like the elite R1s do. If they do it, it must be good, so we should act that way, too. Arrrgggghhh. I hate that. We have different missions, different student bodies, different constitutive faculty, even, so why should we be doing things exactly the same when it comes to evaluating our faculty members? And along with that comes mission creep, expectations creep and so on and so on.

And in talking about this with Bullock, he brought up the problems of interdisciplinary work, or of fields that have disappeared or have so changed how they work that it might seem that someone has shifted fields when it's really the field that shifted around them. Take, for instance the field of the history of the book. In some places that subject is taught and faculty are housed in the history department. But there are certainly English faculty who work in that area, and they might reasonably publish and present in a variety of disciplinary outlets, as would the historians. (In a recent forum on this topic in PMLA, one of the articles recounted a scholar getting his Ph.D. in English who was almost denied because his dissertation on manuscripts and book history wasn't properly a subject of literary studies.) And drama and theater studies cross back and forth between literature scholars and scholars and professionals working in theater departments. If a literary drama scholar were to direct a production, would that count for her professional activity the way it would for someone hired to teach directing and production classes? What then? How do you determine what "counts" in their professional activity? Why shouldn't we be more flexible in determining that?

But, having rather forcefully stated where I stand, I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. What do you think? What counts?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Making myself write

I'm trying to research and write an article. No big news there, since that's part of what I'm paid to do, and which I should be doing pretty much continuously. And, of course, I've done it before. But for some reason this one has me really stuck.

Part of the problem is that I keep veering off in all sorts of directions. Let's say the article is about, I dunno, an allegorical debate poem (it's not -- let's just pretend) with a 16th century manuscript date (again, I'm fudging the truth throughout this description) but assumed late medieval origins largely based on genre, content, and a few philological bits that people have been cribbing from its first editor way back when. And so everyone talks about it as a medieval text. But then it's in a early modern manuscript and there are all sorts of weird things about that manuscript. First of all, the other texts it has been bound with are pretty much ideologically antithetical to what everyone assumes is the orientation of this text. So let's say it seems, on the surface, to have orthodox religious politics for the late Middle Ages, but it's in a manuscript full of non-conformist Protestant tracts. OK, that's weird. And then there's a recent article that points out all sorts of codicological and paleographical evidence that the scribe was imitating print books in making this manuscript. Also weird. And so all of that makes me want to talk about my ideas about this text in terms of reception and reader response and appropriation and 16th century medievalism and the impossibility of a "right" reading and so forth. And if I do so, I really need to do more research on the related 16th century contexts -- book culture and anti-Catholicism as it affected book culture and 16th century medievalism and so on and so forth.

But wait, there's more. Even if we go along with the assumption that this text had origins in the Middle Ages and therefore think of it as a medieval text (although I'm not sure we should go along with them...but at any rate...), it's a weird text by itself. It's not like any other text in its genre; in fact, it's a unique sub-genre. And it's aesthetically bizarre, even in context of all that's already bizarre about late medieval aesthetics. And it's offensive to present day sensibilities (or at least, it should be), and the aspects that make it so offensive are the most written about aspects of the text. And so all of this makes me think I need to take this part of the ongoing scholarly conversation into account, even while doing what I said I want to do in the above paragraph.

And there's more, but I'm running out of ways to talk about it in made-up terms. But you get the idea. Every idea I think I have leads to a dozen more directions of research and thought. This article is like a Hydra on steroids -- cut off one head of ideas and a bajillion more pop up in its place. Argh. I've been toying around with this thing since the year 2-thousand-and-frakin'-3. And I've presented it at conferences in a few variations and gotten good responses to them all. Clearly, I need to stop the "I just need to read one more book" nonsense and start writing something. But I keep unhelpfully convincing myself that I'm not there yet, not ready to write.

So here's my solution: I'm going to pretend that this is a seminar paper and it's due on December 17, just like my students papers are. After all, I turned out decent drafts towards things in ten-week quarters when I was a graduate student, and here I've got a head start and 14 weeks. I think I might even give myself earlier deadlines for an abstract, preliminary bibliography, and annotated bibliography, just like I do with my students.

What do you think?


PS -- I started this blog 4 years ago yesterday. Happy blogiversary to me!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A blog of interest

Ah summer. A time when I just don't have that much of interest to blog. Sigh.

In the meantime, some of you may remember a certain piratically-inclined dessert and bread making friend of mine who blogged her Cookin' School adventures. Well, she's back to blogging at a blog called Stories That Are True. Only this time she's in New Zealand. It's a long story; I'll let her tell it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Where does my research go from here?

As many of you know (because I've been cooing about it on Facebook), my book, published two years ago, now has been reviewed three times and the reviews are all positive. The most recent one, even though it was at times the most critical, was also simultaneously the most enthusiastic. It even made me blush a little bit. It also made me feel pressure to make good on the promise the reviewer seems to think it shows for additional scholarship. As I've been joking, I'm now resting on my laurels, but they're feeling a little prickly.

Like Dr. Crazy, I'm feeling a little like I'm done jumping through hoops, that I don't have to write a second book. Like her, I didn't actually have to write a first book for tenure at my institution, but I did feel I needed to write one to be someone in the field, to feel like I was on par with my peers at fancier universities. But now, also like Dr. Crazy, I'm a little more relaxed about my status and professional identity. (Tenure, promotion, a juicy raise, and good reviews will do that for you.) And unlike what seems to be the case at Dr. Crazy's somewhat similar university, I don't absolutely have to write another book to make full professor; although most of the literature people in the department have done so, a woman in linguistics went up last year with a series of substantial articles (more the norm in her subfield), which helpfully sets a precedent for the department in general. And at our university, the process for full talks about your contribution to and status in your field, and so I'd use reviews and citations of my older work, as well as new work to help establish that (although my previously achieved laurels alone wouldn't do it, of course). That said, our administration seems to want to ramp up research expectations (at the same time that they want to increase teaching load, either by classes or enrollment, of course!), so I need to keep an eye on that and not simply assume that all will continue as it has done. Not to mention the fact that the discipline in general keeps expecting more from each generation. (Why do we do that??)

But the thing is, I'm not sure I have it in me. I have ideas, but I'm just not sure they're book-length ideas. There are two things that I'm spinning my wheels on now. One is on the same genre (in the broadest sense) as the subject of my book, but a different sub-genre from a different part of late medieval/early modern England. That project is definitely only article-length. The other project is related to my previous work only in so far as the socio-economic strata that produced and consumed the texts in question is related to the topic of my first book. It's in a completely different genre, however, and requires of me new skills and knowledge, so it's both daunting and exciting, because it will keep me from getting bored and my work from seeming stale, I hope. It also, at first, seemed like a complex and wide-ranging topic and I thought it would become my next book, but now I'm not so sure. It involves a long list of texts, but the texts themselves are not all that complicated, and I'm starting to think that while it will take a lot of time, effort, and research to show their textual and cultural interrelations and significance, it won't take a lot of pages of writing to do so. I could be wrong -- in the process I might find I have a book after all -- but it looks now like I have another substantial article, perhaps a Speculum-length article, but not a book.

And after that I got nothing. Or at best, I have some very sketchy little obsessions about things I've taught. But see, none of the projects above or the sketchy ideas are really closely related to each other, and so I couldn't put them together to make a book. So what if the second project above really isn't a book-length one? It's possible that I could produce what's 'in the queue' now as articles and maybe a book might germinate out of that. That is, one of those projects might lead to something else that really is a book-length project. Right now, I think that's my plan: keep working on the ideas I've got, following leads and pursuing questions, and keep my eyes open for the bigger picture, if there is one. How I ended up with project number two in the last paragraph, after all, was pretty serendipitous. If not, a series of 4-6 really substantial, well-placed articles would probably get me to full professor, and I've had one come out and one submitted since tenure, so I'm already 1/2 or 1/3 of the way there. I think for my sabbatical application I might still pitch that second project as a potential book, especially since I'll be applying for a whole year, but certainly the manuscript research I need to do will take a year of planning and travelling, anyway, so that will help. But if in the long run it's better as a longish article, that's fine with me.

Of course, if my projects don't turn into books, that means that I take myself out of the running for any moves to more prestigious jobs, but I'm OK with that. First of all, I can't work at the faster or more demanding pace that such a job would require. Take this morning as an example: all I've done is read a chapter of a scholarly work and write this blog post. I'm a slow reader, thinker, and writer. And that's all I manage when I'm not teaching; I manage less when I am. I already have a 2/2 load here (normally 2/3, but I'm grad director, remember) and so a more prestiguous job wouldn't mean any teaching reduction. And these days the grass is no longer looking especially greener at either the public or private R1s or SLACs. Add the greater expecations and pressure to that, and they're really not. And then there's the two-body problem, which Bullock and I conveniently avoided having by meeting here at Rust Belt -- why mess with a good thing?

But staying here at Rust Belt and continuing to publish substantial articles, and doing so in visible places, I think I'd still be contributing to the field, and I'd certainly be contributing to the education of students. I'd still have expertise in the field to share with my students, undergraduate and MA level, and enough visibility and standing that my letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate programs would have substance and weight. And so this is my plan now: keep following the leads and see where they take me, whether that's to articles or a book or a combination of both.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When Chaucer is an intro-level class and other problems with "recommended" prerequisites

From the nine comments on my last post -- not a very good sample, I realize -- it seems that most of you want me to write about teaching issues, particularly the inter-related problems of multiple audiences and students putting off "recommended" pre-requisites. And so that's what I'll do, mostly through the lens of my Chaucer class from Spring. I don't really have any answers here, but maybe we can at least start a conversation and share some ideas.

First, though, some background. Our English major consists entirely of 3000 and 4000 level classes. The 1000 level is reserved for composition and the 2000 level consists of general education courses that don't satisfy the major. To me this seems like an obvious system where each level corresponds roughly to a year in college -- 1000 for first-year stuff, 2000 for more advanced general education courses you should be finishing up in the sophomore year, and 3000 and 4000 level courses for the major, which you're largely doing in your junior and senior years, and where 4000 level courses are more advanced than 3000 level ones. This is partly reinforced in our major requirements where the 3000 level courses have names with "introduction" and "principles" and words like that in them, or where they're called "X 1" and the 4000 version is called "X 2." And a bunch of these courses with the seemingly obvious names are specifically required. So it should seem to the casual observer that one is supposed to take those 3000 level "introduction" courses first. Obviously. Or, at least it's obvious to me, and it was so when I was an undergrad at an institution with the same kind of system. (Where it *didn't* seem intuitive at all to me was in the major at my grad institution, which had 1-digit, 2-digit, and 3-digit courses, and once you got to the 3-digit level, there was some kind of distinction, but it wasn't quite clear what that was.)

But apparently it's not obvious to our students. For one thing, I'm starting to realize that they don't look at the major as a whole -- or few do, anyway. They don't make a long term plan or think in sequences. That's not how our students pick their courses. Rather, they do so one semester or, at best, one year at a time. And from what I've heard from the advisers in various areas -- not just our majors -- a lot of them don't come in for advising from someone with a longer view until their senior year or just before it. And left on their own, they make choices that seem strange to me. I know a lot of them search by day and time, and they use the electronic system that gives them only the course name and brief, general catalog description, instead of consulting the detailed descriptions we write for them in a document that is both mailed to them and available on the department website. Our undergraduate adviser is working on that by developing a booklet that every student will get when they declare the major, which lays out for them the logic and order of the classes and the underlying curricular purposes of the requirements. But I bet that doesn't stop a lot of students from the short-term thinking or from simply picking what fits their schedule or what's taught by someone they heard is a good teacher.

So why aren't there computer-enforced pre-requisites? Honestly, I don't know. I think this state of affairs is combination of various causes, some of them buried deep in the past. Looking at my Chaucer class, it has three "recommended" prereequisites, one of which is the course I think should be a computer-enforced prereq, and two of which are 2000 level general education classes, which these days we teach not as "gateway" courses to majors but as "appreciation" classes (for lack of a better word) to more general audiences. (Although, honestly, were I teaching them, they'd only be slightly different from the true gateway-to-the-major course. But that's another topic.) My guess is that once upon a time the faculty wanted to encourage "converts" (those other majors who realized their true love was English after all when they took a particularly good English gen ed course) and wanted them to be able to move into the upper level courses more quickly. Also, if these three courses were originally more alike in conception and the way they were taught, you'd want any one to be a pre-req. Certainly a computer registration system could be programmed to accept an "X or Y" type choice, but that may have gotten all fouled up in a relatively recent switch to a new system. Or maybe it was beyond the old system. I really don't know for sure, but I do know that our catalog of courses looks in many ways like the accumulation of piecemeal changes, and so the pre-req system (or lack of one) may be the result of that, too.

The other problem might be that the three concentrations within the English major didn't used to have the same core required courses, and so a student in, say, the creative writing concentration wouldn't have necessarily taken the same 3000 course that the English lit concentrators all have to take, but might want to take some of the same 4000 level courses, and so a computer-enforced prereq would require an override in such cases every time. (Or maybe such a pre-req wasn't possible since the computer saw them all as English majors, regardless of concentraion.) But just recently this has changed, and *all* English majors have the same core requirements.

That change is due to our undergraduate advisor, who is also the head of the undergrad curriculum committee, who has been doing a bang-up job reorganizing the major and making it make better sense -- that is, looking less like a bunch of accumulated, piecemeal changes. But he's much more interested in the curricular and pedagogical logic of things than the nuts and bolts, and probably hasn't thought of things like computer-enforced prereqs (or out of date recommended ones). [Note to self: bring this up with him!]

Then there's the additional problem of the English-Ed majors. If they were still all English *and* Education *double* majors, it wouldn't be a problem, but the school of Ed recently devised a single degree option and, frankly, gutted the actual subject content in favor of the pedagogical and curricular courses over in Ed. (The ambitious students still do both degrees, thank heavens.) Those pedagogical courses *are* important, I do realize, but right now the English-Ed single degree requires *no* 4000 level courses. and most of the content is from 2000-level general ed classes. And whoever designed what it does include -- without consulting us -- put in bizarre courses from the catalog that we don't actually teach all that often. *headdesk* But more germane to today's point is this: what those single degree English-Ed students have to take isn't the same as what our English majors have to take, and that screws up the pre-req system as well.

OK, end of boring background. Now, what does this mean for the classroom?

It means that in Spring's Chaucer class, as I only learned well into the semester -- and in one case, at the end of the semester -- I had students who were starting the major and simultaneously taking the intro-level class and mine; English-Ed students who were taking elective English content courses, and had had some English lit courses, but not the core intro class that most of us think of as the foundation of everything after; English majors who knew the ropes already; clueless students only just beginning the English major and taking Chaucer first before anything else; and, on top of all that, MA students of various backgrounds, abilities, and preparation. (Oh, and as a corollary situation, I had two students in my section of the intro level class who had taken all or most of my upper level classes already. They were both smart students who'd managed to find their way through those other courses, but they had a *lot* of eureka moments in the intro class that might have helped had they had that class *before* the others!)

Oy. How do you teach to that mix? In the past I've tried various strategies. In the two most recent go-arounds of Chaucer, I've redesigned the writing assignments to be a series of short papers that build skills every English major should have and that help students cope with the special challenges of Chaucer. I modelled it on the assignment sequence that Jeffrey Cohen once posted about over at In the Middle. They start with simple translation assignments with reflective essays about what gets lost in translation. Then they move to more complex interpretative assignments -- close readings of passages, longer essays. They also review a secondary article (which I pick out, though there's a choice) along the way, to help build to their final paper, where they mount their own argument in conversation with two articles they find themselves. So, it seems, that I've arranged a nice scaffolded sequence of assignments that build skills in relation to the subject at hand -- Chaucer -- and the discipline as a whole.

But as basic as those first assignments seem -- and there were a number of low-stakes close-readings for them to learn from -- a lot of them didn't know what to do even after a *lot* of commenting on my part and dealing with individual sets of knowledge gaps student by student. The kinds of things they didn't know how to do included a lot of the stuff I drill in the intro class, including: the difference between summary and analysis; the necessity of remembering that characters are not real people, that they're illusions created by language, that they can't make choices; the need to turn to the text frequently for evidence, and how to do that both in terms of the mechanics and the logic and argument; the need to *make* an argument; and the most difficult but necessary move from describing what a text does, however prettily, to thinking about what and how it means. Ideally, the upper division classes would be where we talk about that last point the most, and add the various methods and materials and knowledge for talking about that (theories, contexts, genres, etc.). But with many of my students -- including, btw, an occassional MA level student -- I didn't get to that last point because they're just getting the hang of the other issues. There was one student this semester whom I could never get to move past his personal reaction to characters. He wrote weird, angry essays about all the women who were sexually or emotionally unfaithful and claimed -- when he had a thesis at all -- that his disgust with them was Chaucer's disgust. I really should have required that guy to come talk to me (I did urge him, but didn't require him), not to berate him for his misogyny (although that *was* disturbing) but just to teach him that characters aren't real and that his sitting in judgement over them said more about him than about Chaucer. (Although, in retrospect, I guess it taught me that Chaucer's women push the buttons of certain kinds of men. OK, duly noted.) It saddened me that he could never imaginatively move out of his own point of view enough to see that maybe Chaucer was saying something very different and that maybe he might learn something from that (such as, for example, that women have sexual desires, which, judging from his screeds, he desperately needed to learn). Had he been in my intro class, he would have had many assignments and activities that precisely talked about how our immediate reactions to texts can sometimes be with the grain of the text or sometimes against the grain, and that one of the first things we need to do to be more analytical is make those kinds of distinctions and figure out what we think the text wants from us (or if that's radically unclear, so be it).

I don't mind having to reinforce lessons learned in the intro classes, or needing to teach the quirks of reading older literature (for example, that it rarely, if ever, is naturalistic or a depiction of everyday lives the way that, say, the social novel is). But it's damned difficult to teach simultaneously to MA-level students with aspirations for the Ph.D. and student who are, for all intents and purposes, coming straight from their high school level lit classes where, appropriate to that level, they do tend to talk about how a text made them feel or if they liked a character or not. It's hard enough to pitch any upper level course to a broad array of English majors who'll go on to various careers and lives. And it's a bit more hard to teach to that body *plus* the MA students. But then it gets a whole exponential level harder to add the underprepared students who are going through the major haphazardly. This has probably always been the case since I've been at Rust Belt, but it seemed a particularly intense problem this past semester. There were some "light bulb" moments and I have no doubt that a lot of the students learned a whole lot about thinking analytically about how literature works. If they realize that it wasn't just about my course, and if they carry that knowledge to other courses, they'll benefit in the long run. But some grades took some serious hits (and I'm sure my evals did as a result). And it was a harder struggle than usual -- it was a Chaucer course lacking some of the joy that it usually has. I think that was partly because so many of the students were dealing with the anxiety that is Chaucer alone -- it's hard! it's weird! it's not a novel! -- plus the anxiety that my assignments and comments and grades provoked.

And this isn't limited to my Chaucer course. I had a lot of the same problems in the broader medieval lit course the previous semester, but that semester's class was weird and wacky in so many other ways because of the personality clashes and dramas going on in it that the usual pedagogical issues were overshadowed by the rest of the nuttiness. And so I'm sure this radical mix of levels and preparation will happen in future courses.

So, what now? We could, maybe, enforce the intro-level class pre-req. We do offer the class every semester and in the summer, too. But what if we can't? How do I (re) adapt what I'm doing to the various audiences and levels and needs of my students? Do you have any ideas, because I'm kind of fresh out.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I got bupkis

I haven't been blogging because, well, I'm boring. I got nothing. Help me out here and give me a topic. What do you want to know about?

Or how about I give you some choices.

  • Would you like me to write about the experience of collaborating on a class design, which is one of the things I'm doing this summer (though the class won't be taught until Spring 2010)?
  • Or how about the agony of coming up with new research projects now that the book is done?
  • Or should I write a confessional entry about my frustrations with teaching last semester (note: *not* with my student, but with *my* teaching) and the difficulty of speaking to multiple audiences/levels (English-Ed students, English majors interested in grad school, MA students, etc.).
  • Or maybe I should write about my frustrations with our prereq-light system that means students who haven't taken the Intro to Lit Studies class take classes like my senior level Chaucer class before they've even learned how to think about literary texts at the college level (which I suppose is related to point three, above).
  • Or, on a cheerier note, I could write about how Bullock and I have spent last summer and this one rewatching all of Buffy and Angel (half way through the latter) -- though I'm not sure I've entirely processed my thoughts on that yet.
  • Or, I could write about how I'm not only planning a class for Spring, but have done my syllabuses for the Fall and am trying to plan ahead not to have a maddening year this coming year in terms of prep and grading.
Or, again, you can suggest a topic, though I retain the right to demure if it's too personal or revealing or I don't have much to say on the topic.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is that supposed to be an insult?

You know, when I read medieval misogynist aphorisms like this one --

A wyld beest a man may tame
A womanes tunge will never be lame

-- my
first response is "Hell yeah! Right on!"

Just saying.

Back from the UK with visions of food dancing my head

In past summers I've spent a lot of time in the UK, but this year I went there only for a week -- totally personal, too, not professional -- and I'm actually looking forward to a summer of reading, thinking, and writing in my own home. And in the next post, I'll have a research-related query for you all. But first, an update.

Bullock and I are just now back from our trip to the north of England where, as many of my Facebook friends already know, I attended a good friend's wedding in a borrowed dress and shoes (and no makeup, and unwashed hair!) because my luggage didn't get there in time. The fact that there was an attendee who lived locally and who had an extra dress in roughly my size was nothing short of miraculous. Otherwise, I might have gone to the wedding in the t-shirt and chinos I'd been wearing for about 36 hours straight. And not just any chinos, but coffee-stained chinos, the result of the flight attendant having spilled coffee all over me on the flight there. But it all worked out, and I actually liked the borrowed dress better than my own. England has many more cute dress options that the States, even in the English cities that are more or less the equivalent of Rust Belt City.

Speaking of which, I don't know why it took me so long to realize this, but much of the north of England -- especially Lancashire and Yorkshire -- have a lot in common with the upper Midwest. It's full of former industrial cities that hit hard times in the last few decades but are experiencing some renaissance now in the creative and cultural classes (think Chicago or Cleveland or even Pittsburg; and then Manchester and Leeds); the people are friendly, unsnobby, and hospitable; there are large Muslim populations in Dearborn, MI, and Bradford and Leeds; there's great Middle Eastern and Pakistani food to be had; and there is much beer drunk and much cheese eaten. No wonder I feel so much more at home in the north than in the south of England. Of course there are less savory similarities, too -- Yorkshire just elected a member of the British Nationalist Party to the European Parliament and Michigan is also frequently known as Militia-gan.

But one thing every city (and sometimes the towns and villages) in the north of England has that is missing in Rust Belt City is a slew of restaurants doing interesting and inventive things or just doing traditional dishes exceptionally well. The fact that the UK is having a cuisine renaissance is now practically common knowledge, and I've been noticing it and commenting on it for at least the last 10 years. In the north, especially, I've had amazingly good traditional, local food, often at small hotel restaurants and local pubs off the beaten tourist path. This trip I had tender, slips-off-the-bone-with-a-fork lamb at The Peasehill House Hotel Restaurant in Rawdon (a suburban village near the Leeds/Bradford airport); rich, tender duck confit salad at The Malt in Burley-in-Wharfedale (at the wedding reception); sweet and creamy mussels at Delrio's in York; mouth wateringly rich pork belly at the Hotel du Vin Bistro in York; and a lovely steak with a crunchy duck egg on top (the egg had been dropped into the fryer so that the whites fried up in the shape of wings, but the white stayed runny inside -- you wouldn't believe how good runny egg on steak is!) and a "trifle" of asparagus (a foam with crunchy peas in it) at J. Baker's Bistro Moderne in York.

But the best of all dinners was one I booked us for our last night. We were staying at the Crowne Plaza Manchester Airport (NOT recommended -- boo!) for our morning flight, so I did a bit of hunting on the internet to find an interesting and fine restaurant in the general vicinity. I finally decided on The Alderley at the the Alderley Edge Hotel in Cheshire, about 7 miles southeast of the airport, whose online menu suggested that they did interesting interpretations of traditional dishes, using mostly locally sourced ingredients. (If you're ever inclined to do the same -- though hopefully from one of the other airport hotels, NOT the icky Crowne Plaza -- I recommend taking the train from the Manchester Airport to Alderley Edge and walking through the posh and charming village to the restaurant, then taking a taxi back, since the trains stop running back to the airport at about 10 -- the taxi is about 15GBP and the restaurant will call it for you. We chickened out and taxied both ways, because we weren't sure what the walk from the station looked like, which really was a waste of money.)

Anyway, we were not disappointed. First of all, it was simply a lovely dining *experience*, the kind we can't get at all around here. Our coats were taken and we were first seated in the bar, where drink orders were taken and we were given a complimentary plate of amuse-bouche to go with the drinks. Then we were brought the menus, and the head waiter/maitre-d' (it was a small wait staff of three who shared tasks, but it clear who the top guy was) let us take our time as we hemmed and hawed over whether to go with the three course prix fixe menu, or a la carte, or go for the 6 course tasting menu. (There was little overlap between the three and it all looked SO good.) In the end we went a la carte because those were the dishes that excited us the most. (And here, I should say, if you go there and order what we did -- cocktails, inexpensive house bottle of wine, bottle of water, three courses each, plus coffee and petit fours -- it will cost you about 150GBP. It will cost more if you go off the house wine list (which is still quite nice, btw) -- that's where we cut a little cost because we not as much oenophiles as we are foodies. We knew we were splurging, but given the level of service and the wonderful food -- and given how much we like food -- it was worth it for us.)

And then once we'd ordered and we seated at our table, we had a leisurely dinner, perfectly paced by the attentive but unobstrusive staff, who had the rhythms of their restaurant down perfectly. And the food! Oh. My. God. The food! I really should've taken pictures, because it was all so beautiful on the plate, and just as rapture-inducing in the mouth. (You can see what I mean if you go to the website; you can also see the whole current menu there.) Just to give you an idea, for our entrees, I had the "Saddle of Roe Deer, Venison Hash, Poached Cherries, Pickled Sloe Gin" and Bullock had "Cheshire Spring Lamb, Three Ways with 'Shepherd's Pie,' Pickled Beetroot and Leeks." The "Shepherd's Pie" is in quotation marks for a reason -- not because of random quotation mark abuse -- because it was a miniature, almost bit-sized "pie" with a tiny little tart shell, a bite sized piece of lamb, and a dollop of mashed potato on top. (And then there were the other ways his lamb was prepared -- a lovely variety of miniature traditional lamb dishes.) And the pickled stuff was in the form of artfully sliced jellies that added color as well as taste to the plate. My plate, with its accompanying spring carrots and green onions looked liked modernist art, like a Mondrian done in triangles instead of squares and rectangles, but topped by the perfectly bite-sized array of oval slices of roe deer and the little ovals of the venison hash. And oh, was it good. The flavors seem kind of busy in my description -- so many things on a plate -- but it was all laid out so you could have a bit of saddle of deer with a cherry, or the hash with a bite of the sloe gin and a carrot.

I know for some people this might seem all too fussy, but I really appreciated the care, the craft, the art, and the thought in it all. I like the way it appeals to the eye as well as the nose and the tongue. I like the fact that it reminds me of other arts while I'm enjoying it. In fact, I think that's what characterizes this kind of cuisine -- it's food for thinking about as well as tasting. Or thinking about *while* tasting. And given the leisurely pace of the experience you have time to do that, to savor, to think, to discuss, to ruminate (well, hopefully not literally!). And I also like that with three courses, plus amuse-bouche and petit fours, I didn't feel horribly stuffed. I like the fact that I get to try all sorts of different flavors (and the appetizers and desserts were equally abundant in tastes) without over-eating. And alas, I still haven't found anything quite like this in and around Rust Belt City. There's an award-winning regional restaurant in the city 2 hours away from here that we like very much, but it requires an overnight stay, since a 4 hour round-trip drive is too much for one night. But this academic year Bullock and I have been quite spoiled with our trip to Paris and our trip to England, and now I fear we'll feel the lack of such restaurants even more. Sigh.

We also did all the touristy things one does in York and Leeds -- the Minster, the Yorkshire Museum, the Jorvik Viking Center, the Royal Armouries, etc., etc. -- and had a fun time at my friend E's easy-going, relaxed wedding and reception (once the dress issue was sorted out, anyway!). I also recommend the Hotel du Vin in York, if you can get a good discout rate. It was by far the most comfortable and modern hotel we stayed in (fantastic hurricane shower head! wonderful bed! and everything smells so good!), and it's only a 10 minute walk from the train station, as well as from Mickelgate Bar and the medieval part of the city.

Oh, and also, having learned about Eric Bloodaxe in all the York Viking-related museums, Bullock now wants to be known as Bloodaxe on the blog. But I thought that might be confusing for readers who pop in now and then. I suppose I could just attach the Viking nickname to the Western pseudonyn, like so: Bullock-Bloodaxe (with or without the hyphen). What do you think?

And yes, I will have some pictures, once I upload them from my memory card, and once Bullock gives me copies of his much better ones. I have a post brewing about one in particular. More later.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Slow and steady: my new motto for teaching

I crammed too much into my Chaucer class this semester. I expected students to do close-reading assignments without modeling enough of that in class. Oh sure, I'd pick out passages to look at closely and then we'd build out to the tale or prologue or the book of Troilus as a whole, but then most of class was spent thinking in big, conceptual modes. Those modes have their place, too, but if, three quarters of the way through the semester you realize from multiple students' papers that they're misunderstanding the very basics of given text, then you've got a problem.

Case in point: one bright and enthusiastically engaged student this semester wrote that the mourning women at the beginning of the Knight's Tale were selfish and whiny. I suppose, on some level, all mourning is inherently selfish, but he wasn't thinking on that level. Instead, he took at face value Theseus's charge that they must be jealous of his triumph, rather than understanding that that was Theseus's own selfish misreading of the situation, or seeing that Theseus's changed understanding after they had pleaded their case exhibits how he learns to be a more appropriately compassionate ruler through showing sympathy for the pain and suffering of his subjects. In class I took all of the above as a given and started a discussion about the troubling nature of that lesson, and the ways in which even Theseus's compassion remains selfish, how he turns it into an opportunity for his own glory and heroism, how it's all predicated on war and the suffering of others (and whether or not the text was aware of that or if we were reading against the grain). But my student had missed the basics; he'd misinterpreted the tone of the women begging and crying for compassion, because, of course, it's presented in formalized, poetic language, and would seem off-puttingly melodramatic in a narrative today. We don't tend to have positive associations with the act of begging or with the idea of "pity," and so medieval texts presenting such scenes are ripe for such misreadings. (Likewise, the entire class found Troilus off-putting; but in that case, I spent some time explaining the rhetorical of the medieval lover, and explaining that he's *supposed* to put himself in his beloved's power and beg for her pity. But maybe it didn't stick or this student couldn't then translate that similar language to the situation of the mourning women.) He also, apparently, missed that they were mourning and begging for the sake of their husbands' honor, not their own, and he didn't realize how very different the relationship between kings and subjects is (especially in its medieval idealized forms) from the relationship between citizens and elected governments. (There were bits of American individualist rhetoric in his paper.) And heck, in a world where Glenn Beck hates 9/11 victims' families and the poor stranded in New Orleans after Katrina, it's no wonder my student couldn't muster up compassion for a group of unnamed, fictional, historical distant women who were, after all, mere words on a page.

But I'm not blaming my student for that failure. I'm blaming me. There were lots of misreadings like this during the semester, from various students, including misreadings of the critical texts they read for various assignments. If the benefits of reading difficult literature from the past include learning how to read and interpret difficult texts, as well as learning that the assumptions of some texts may not align with our own assumptions (whether it's the meaning of a word like "pity," or what makes a satisfying read, or bigger cultural and political assumptions), and through those lessons learn simply to recognize difference (and perhaps even become more sympathetic to it), then I failed to teach those lessons, to give my students those benefits.

And so, in the future, not only am I going to alternate Troilus and Criseyde (plus dream visions and/or bits of The Legend of Good Women) with The Canterbury Tales, and teach them in separate classes, but I'm going to sloooooooow the pace down. We're going to do some serious close reading together, and we're going to start with issues of diction, tone, and style before we proceed to anything else. I do this in my lower division intro to literary study (although not slowly enough), but it needs to be reinforced in the upper level classes, especially with texts as difficult as Chaucer, and with poetic texts in general. And as a participation element of my class, I'm going to require students to come to each class with a passage that they think needs to be looked at closely, along with written notes concerning their own interpretation of the passage. I'll model this for them in the beginning, and then I'll call on students -- different ones each time -- to share their passages. I might structure classes so that the first day on a given text or part of a text (say, Book III of Troilus and Criseyde), we do nothing but that, drawing on our knowledge of the rest to provide context for understanding. And then on the second day we'll broaden the discussion, and show how we move from close reading to "far" reading. And yes, we'll spend two days on every text or part of a text, unless it's something very short (for example, "Adam Scriveyn").

And we'll do this with at least one secondary text, too. I found this semester that students claimed that perfectly well-written articles that I had them review on their own were "unclear" or "disorganized" because the students didn't know how to follow a complex, multi-part argument and see its organization. They weren't marking up their texts and noting the underlying structure, or they were getting lost in the details and forgetting where they'd been. So, I'll assign an article that we'll all read *and* discuss together. I'll ask them to outline it, to find both the global organization (including the thesis) and the topic sentence or idea of every paragraph. I think I might use Mary Carruther's "The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions" for two reasons: 1) It's a classic text that changed the way we read the Wife's Prologue and Tale, and that will also allow a broader discussion of critical history and reception; 2) it's a model of organization and argument, good for teaching students what a well-wrought argument looks like, without being too intimidating. If anybody has any other suggestions -- perhaps an article that *doesn't* rely on historical evidence so heavily, to provide a different kind of model -- I'd welcome them.

In a 2008 whitepaper (link opens PDF file), the MLA recommended that the curriculum of the English or foreign language major should offer courses of the following types, and I think in my proposed re-design of my Chaucer course(s), I'm meeting, in part, the bolded suggestions:
courses that develop literacies in reading and writing
at least one course devoted to slow reading and in-depth study of an artistically great work or works
• at least one small seminar to develop individuals’ capacities to their fullest
• at least one team-taught or interdisciplinary class
a course on disciplinary issues and scholarly debates
• the opportunity to study abroad

I think my redesign would also do a better job of teaching Chaucer! What do you think?

Monday, May 11, 2009

In which I am teh lame

I'm back from Kzoo and I had a really lovely time. But I also completely crashed by the end of it and couldn't bring myself to make it to the dance. My headache was just too raging and my energy way too low. So I played Trivial Pursuit on my phone with The General in our hotel room.

That's reason #1 why I am teh lame.

Reason #2: I completely forgot about the party for Bonnie Wheeler. Forgot to RSVP. Forgot to go. Forgot it even existed, until I read about it on blogs today. The invitation is still sitting on my desk here in Rust Belt, under a pile of other stuff I've neglected this semester. D'oh!

My excuse for my lameness is in the post two below this one. It's hard to be on top of social things when you're barely on top of all the rest.

But I have to say, I'm in a much better mood post-Kzoo than I was pre-Kzoo, thanks to all of you whose company I shared this weekend, however briefly!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thank you!

I wanted to thank everyone who commented on the last post, and since I'm a little late in commenting myself (sigh), I thought it was best to elevate it to a post. So, thank you! Yes, it does help to know that what I'm experiencing is common or even "normal." And it's even better to know that with a bit of effort I'll get past this stage.

This is just one of the many ways that blogs are a big help to the academic community. I think there's perhaps one person in my department who I *might* have been able to talk to about this, and I'm not sure she would have offered any positive advice. In fact, she might have made me feel even more doomed. And I vaguely recall an Inside Higher Ed piece on the same topic getting a lot of those IHE trolls who said, more or less, 'boo hoo, so get a different job.'

And can I just say that I'm touched that I got 15 comments right away, despite my spotty blogging this semester? (Yay for RSS readers, I assume!)

So thanks, everyone.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Post-tenure blues. Ennui. Depression. Melancholy. Or something like that

This is what it's like after tenure for some of us.

And these are the reasons (or collectively, the single reason) I haven't been blogging this semester. See, it's like this: I have no enthusiasm for anything I do right now, whether research, teaching, service, or blogging. I keep putting things off and then feeling them hang over my head. And what do I do instead? I Facebook. Why? Some might say it's for the instant gratification, and they're probably right. But it's also for the sheer mindless, time-wasting, numbness-inducing state it puts me in. Time slips away effortlessly when I piddle around on FB (or, my second favorite online place to be, the realtor in Neighboring State that lists all the 10+ acre estates and is searchable by county). And then, after the time has slipped away, I berate myself and work at a frantic pace to get a half-assed job done of my grading or reading or whatever. Or I work all weekend to punish myself, which is particularly stupid, because if I had a better handle on my time, I'd have weekends off for the first time in forever this semester, and I'd be able to enjoy my life and the unexpectedly large raise that came with tenure because of a newly negotiated contract that raised the tenure bumps. And have I mentioned that I haven't run since November? And that I've gained 20 pounds as a result?

I've rarely been in a state this bad for this long. It has pretty much lasted the entire semester (perhaps minus the first month and a half, when I had the euphoria of wining and dining job candidates to sustain me). I occassionaly experience brief bouts of this kind of inertia in my dissertating years, but not since having become a professor. I'm sure it doesn't help that our university is an annoyingly wacko place these days, but really, I think I'd be going through this just about anywhere.

You see, we push and push and push to reach certain goals, tenure being just about the biggest of them, but after tenure, the goals are less clear. There's a sense of deflation. All of a sudden you realize your job has some of the qualities of routine that any other job has. And it's -- gasp! -- a job. This is especially true if, like me, you teach a certain range of courses over and over and over. By now you've got them down, a little too down, and they start to feel stale.

Some smart people arrange for sabbatical for the year after they're tenured, and if I were on sabbatical I might find some rejuvenation. I'd actually like to work on my research, but I've been so poorly managing my time, that of course it's the thing that has really fallen by the wayside. But I went up for tenure a year early, and I'm also putting off sabbatical for yet another year because of a wonderful teaching opportunity that I'm seizing with a colleague in theater. And maybe doing that ununusual team-taught course will energize both my teaching and my research, since seeing someone else do it half the time will give me ideas and a fresh insight into the subject matter, which also happens to be an area part of my research interests are in.

None of this is to say that the life of a professor is hard. But there's a burden that's unique and peculiar to it and that can lead to the kind of inertia I'm talking about. Right now it's going to take every atom of will power in my body to make it through the semester (and to write my Kzoo paper -- ack!), and then it will take additional will to start my work up again in the summer (thank god there's a 10 day vacation -- not research! -- trip to the UK in a little over a month). I'll get there. Writing this helped.

In the meantime, if you've ever been in such a funk, especially as a faculty member, what got you out of it? How did you rejuvenate interest in your research and teaching?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Facebook killed the blogosphere star

No, not really.

Remember, correlation is not causation. Just because I'm on Facebook pretty regularly does not mean that's the reason why I have not been blogging as much lately. In fact, the reasons why I'm not blogging as much are the reasons why I'm on Facebook -- it fills the electronic conversational gap that my inability to keep up with blogging right now has left.

As for why I haven't been blogging, that has more to do with my ridiculously poor time management skills this semester. And the reasons for those are something I do want to blog about soon...if only I can find the time! (Oh, the irony.)

But now I have to get ready to go have lunch with a certain very dangerous blogger. And then later I'll be attending his big talk, followed by dinner.

And tomorrow Bullock and I are off to visit a town with a rockin' museum to eat some pig's ear, take in the view from our lakefront hotel, and belatedly celebrate my 40th birthday.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Best overheard conversation in light of current trends in higher ed

Yesterday in the hallways of Michel Foucault Memorial Panopticon, I heard the following conversation as two student passed a classroom labeled "Distance Learning Classroom."

Student #1: What's a Distance Learning Classroom?

Student #2: It's where they broadcast a video of a professor's lecture from a remote location.*

Student #1: They do that?!

*Well, actually, it's where they film such lectures -- in front of a live audience! -- to broadcast later to students *not* in classrooms. But as I used to say in the fifth grade, "same diff."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated

Or in other words...."I'm not dead!...I feel fine!"

Blogging will resume. I promise.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Realization of the day

If you "friend" your colleagues on Facebook and you take a wee little break to play WordTwist (or enter your FB time-wasting activity of choice) it's really easy to feel really guilty about not working when they send you a chat message!

OK, now I'm *really* going to get back to work!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Research/theory question for the medievalists and early modernists

ETA: Maybe this *isn't* just for the early modernists! All suggestions welcome!

I'm trying to work out something I've been thinking about for awhile, and that I presented a paper about at last year's Kalamazoo (so if you know me, and you're so inclined, you could go look up the specifics, since the rest of this post is likely to be vague). I'm starting to be convinced that a particular text, conventionally regarded as having a medieval origin, is actually an imitation of things medieval. I don't think it's a fake -- I'm not talking about something like Chatterton's forgeries here -- but I am starting to think it's an early-modern anti-Catholic representation and parody of medieval modes of thought, rhetoric, and genre. (When I presented on this at Kalamazoo, I argued for the parodic elements, but I assumed it was coming from within late medieval debates and anxieties. Now I'm not so sure.)

So, my question for you all is this: if you were writing on imitation or parody --whether or not in the context of early modern polemic against the Roman church? -- what theories and texts would you look to to help you think through this (medieval, early modern, or contemporary)?

Yeah, I know, completely vague. But maybe you can still help.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Helping Neko Case help Best Friends help companion animals

Neko Case has a new album coming out, and she's making a song from it available for free download. And for every blog that posts the download, she and her label, ANTI-, will donate $5 to Best Friends Animal Society. And since I like *both* Neko Case and Best Friends, I'm happy to help out.

Click here to download "People Got a Lotta Nerve." To find out how you can post it to your blog and help out, too, go here (where you can also preview the song first, if you want, before you download). (And if you can figure out how to get the code for the imeem player to work, let me know.)

About Best Friends (from the ANTI- page on how to blog it): Founded in 1984, Best Friends advances nationwide animal welfare initiatives by working with shelter and rescue groups around the country. On any given day Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the nation’s largest facility for abused, abandoned and special needs companion animals located in southwestern Utah, is home to approximately 2,000 dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, birds, and other animals. The society also publishes Best Friends magazine, the nation’s largest general interest, pet-related magazine with approximately 300,000 subscribers.

I personally learned about Best Friends from the Pastry Pirate, who has visited them in Utah and was very impressed with the work they do.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

When dissertation directors have too much power

Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger's absence.

Anyway, I'm back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I'm catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi's quiet and mellow. She's dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we'll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!

So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market -- including the 14 we were interviewing -- and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they're meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone's stories -- successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs -- as well as the stories they'd heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.

A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn't let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)

According to my friend -- or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing -- the reason the director wouldn't let his student file wasn't because the diss wasn't finished or wasn't good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn't good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that's messed up.

Here's why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it's not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn't paying off her credit card bills; she's accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn't contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year's contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let's leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there's the fact that if you're a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment -- or even summer school pay -- it's likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid's college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let's leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).

But it's not just about money. There's social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can't begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently -- I got invited to the secret faculty party! -- and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once -- I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say "I teach at such and such a place" than you do when you say "I'm a Ph.D. student at such and such a place."

And there's still more that's problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it's different in degree from the spouse who won't let his partner have her own life, it's not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the "it's for your own good" justification; she can't bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she's partly/mostly to blame - if only she'd just write a better book. I've seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.

But more troubling -- or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale -- is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants -- perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more -- it's two books for tenure at some places now. It's utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they're only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn't it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren't we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn't stop only with those of us on that end of things -- the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don't think a dissertation that's just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school -- but that's a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn't yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.

Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did -- indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you'd think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our "academic age," wouldn't you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she's a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she's a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years -- even doing field work for part of it -- because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a "wordy" field - not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn't exactly expect a finished book -- and certainly didn't keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) -- but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like "this is something you'll want to think about more when you turn this into a book." So I didn't have the kind of director I'm troubled by in this post. But I also didn't have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that's made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.

The profession as a whole -- and especially those fields where we write books -- needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don't start setting some reasonable limits now.