Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The best professional moments of 2009

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

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

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

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

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

So what were your most gratifying moments of 2009?

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

Congrats on the goodness :)

For me, the good things tend to be small daily things, a student getting the lightbulb look, a colleague appreciating something I've done, and so on.