Friday, November 30, 2007
Thursday, November 29, 2007
We get that list from someone at least a couple of times a week. We love it, but have read it so often now that it's not nearly as funny as it was the first time.
But last night someone sent us a new version of the list that we've never seen, and while it didn't make us pee our pants, or anything, we were glad to see some new material. Here are the ones that tickled us most. Enjoy the flava.
Ten Things to Do In Class.
- Bring a trombone to class and hand it to the student closest to your desk. Say, "You take care of Mr. T-Bone, and I'll take care of you."
- Whenever anyone asks a question, just reply: "I don't know. What does your monkey think?"
- Announce the start of the exam, but don't pass anything out. Put your head down on your desk and say, "You're all on your own. I'm turning on the radio in my head."
- In the middle of lecturing, stop, look around and say, "My mama. Did you hear my mama? You, there, can you see her? Let me know if my mama is behind me!"
- Tell the class that if anyone says the words "bacon," "dishwasher," or "panorama," that you've got a sock full of nickels in your briefcase that you'll smack them with. Hold the briefcase up and say, "If it's a trip to nickel city you're looking for, then I'm the man to send you there!"
- If any sound comes from outside the classroom, check your watch and say, "My wife will be here any minute. And then we're all in trouble."
- Pull aside a student and whisper, "That guy behind you? Man, he looks crazy!"
- All semester long, whenever any student comes in late, say loudly, "And so that's where we buried the gold." Then laugh a little too loud and a little too long.
- When anyone else is speaking, tap the top of your head with your palm. Stop when they stop, and then smell your hand.
- Bring a big tray of food for yourself. Start eating from it, and occasionally point to various students and say, "These are my beans, baby. You may want some beans. But you'll have to get your own."
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The Chiefiest of all Chief Correspondents - Weepy Wayne from Waterloo - Waxes On Why We're So Woeful!
After graduating at the top of my class, I arrived at the gates of academe, and was shunted into a janitor's closet as an adjunct. There I stayed, watching dedicated professors twice my age being drained of their vitality by an exploitative system that sold promises to tuition payers and larded administrative sinecures with pensioned hacks. In the classroom, I encountered students who were lazy, arrogant, and aggressively apathetic. They yawn at Dostoevsky, wince when confronted with a five page essay, and glare at me when I implore them to step it up for the challenges of that "Real World' they are so impatient to embrace.
Along the way I discovered how to make students succeed in spite of themselves. My reviews are often five-star. The best students who do care learn in spite their surroundings and make this all worthwhile. I am welcomed back to teach part-time every semester; however, despite my success teaching the "Big Kid" lecture classes in literature, I find that more and more I am offered "remedial" courses (i.e., Commas for Comas). These students I encounter are crassly materialistic and blithely delusional about the world beyond their dorm. As a result, my contact with buttercups who are openly hostile toward reading, thinking, and the possibilities of a university education has multiplied exponentially. Preparing them for the threshold of College Writing I is nothing short of draining. I find myself discussing TV shows I don't watch, and celebrities I couldn't identify on a dare. If I reach for Rimbaud, I will lose them. Instead, we deconstruct Britney Spears as I try to wedge in the Fisher King Myth.
In short, I left a brutal job, clawed my way up the hill, and found myself surrounded by the very people I wanted to escape when I was 20. There are many aspects of this job I enjoy, but I do understand when some of my colleagues feel cheated. We were never waved off by our English professors. Grad school happily took our money. And the current system is geared to exploit a glut of English majors. In a number of ways, I'm lucky to have this job. Hell, I could be installing insulation in a sub-zero crawlspace. But I'm not blind to the larger picture.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Monday, November 26, 2007
Would you mind terribly to turn on the lights and the air conditioning on the weekend? I realize you are desperately trying to prove yourselves to be saints -- that is to be highly ranked and carbon neutral -- but I would like to be able to do the research necessary to keep myself here on this hallowed holy campus. Unfortunately, I find that my type of research, the not-in-a-bazillion-dollar-laboratory-kind to be a touch difficult to complete when it is 48F in my office.
Of course, you could also open and police the library and I would happily go demonstrate to my students that I am a hard working individual by doing my research there, in their presence. I mean, you would have to open the library before 1 pm on Sunday and close it after 11 pm. And it would be wonderful if you could have more than 1 employee per floor to tell our precious tutioners to turn off their phones and get off of their girlfriends/ boyfriends.
I seriously could do research in the library if I weren't trying to tune out the sounds of undergraduate love-making and iPods.
See? People Love the Academic Haiku OR Short, Enigmatic Free Verse About Academic Matters, Occasionally Referencing Seasons, Nature, and Margaritas.
We've chosen some of the best and liveliest of the recent submissions, and present them below. Enjoy the flava, but don't miss earlier installments: Here, here, here, and here.
Leaves crunch underfoot.
Like the autumn leaves
your criticism tumbles --
Thanks, schmuck. What a putz.
Icy cold, your words
RYS exists to vent
"Real deal" or not -- ass.
Pale green, translucent
Leaves, like words, emerge fragile
Spring calls us to crab.
Bright summer sun shines
A beacon, RYS is!
Screw you, critic-boy.
"Hope you don't teach lit?"
Pretty funny, coming from
One who uses "ain't."
In my office
The Monday before Thanksgiving –
Stack of student papers
To grade over Thanksgiving.
Yeah, right. More wine?
I am thankful for
my students. No, really, I
need to pay the bills.
Fuck it. The blender calls --
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Seriously, Academic Haiku Are Not Really Haiku At All. They're Enigmatic and Short Free Verse. And Usually People Hate Them. Watch for More Next Week!
even your "real haiku" ain't
the real deal. Schlemiels.
True haiku are more
than five-seven-five. They must
focus on nature
Your webpage drabbles
are better called "senryu";
Hope you don't teach lit.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Huey the Student finally showed up today for an appointment to discuss his (non) thesis. When it becomes clear to me that Huey has in fact done nothing on the thesis, which is due in a month, I try as gently as possible to get Huey to admit that he needs to focus and buckle down.
Now here's the big surprise. Huey turns on me. In spite of my two decades of college teaching, teaching awards, publications, prestigious degree, etc., Huey says that I'm boring, unprepared, incompetent, under-qualified, and my class sounds like I'm reading the Wikipedia article on the subject aloud.
And it's not only me! Huey (and Dewie and Louie, the other majors) are skipping classes because the whole faculty of the department is incompetent and boring! And if we would just get our act together we wouldn't lose these sainted majors. It might shock you hear that Huey, Dewie and Louie do absolutely mediocre work and skip class liberally.
Honestly, if we live in a world where the "customer" is always right, then I just want to work in the mall.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
It's Academic Haiku Time Again. Even Though We Can Barely Stand the Thought Of the Dismay We Will Feel When It Goes Poorly Again.
Anyway, we thought academic haiku day would be big. We thought there'd be little parties all across the academy when a new academic haiku came out. But mostly we just heard from folks saying that they weren't real haiku. (And the underlying message always was: "You just aren't good enough. Daddy didn't love you. Mommy only tolerated you. That scar is never going to heal. Your face is too fat, and we don't like the slope of your forehead.")
So, you can tell how hard it has been. But, because we're gluttons for punishment (and margaritas, and Kit Kat bars, etc.) we offer another academic haiku below. Please feel free to crush our remaining trust and hope in humanity. This comes - as you will see - from a grad student trying to sort it all out. Please enjoy the flava:
trying to decide between
academia or industry.
I like teaching,
won an award,
but this semester's students
have me reeling.
So, to you all,
tenured old timers,
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Saturday, November 17, 2007
And those three days before thanksgiving too? It's totally inappropriate for me to have class then too? Oh... I see... your family is making you leave... dragging you to Disneyworld for Thanksgiving... wow, hardship. Oh, and all of your other instructors cancelled class? Absolutely, you're right. Let's cancel those days too - I didn't really have anything special planned.
And the first weeks of December? Oh... your work hours are increasing for the holiday season and so you can't really make it to class anymore. Will that be okay? Well, it's not like we do ever do anything important.
Tell you what, let me streamline this process for you. Next semester, just write me a check for the $1000 in tuition instead of my college, and I'll give you the same F, but I won't make you feel guilty for it by asking you to come to class or learn anything. It will just be an even trade.
Really, it will be less painful for both of us.
Friday, November 16, 2007
- How I envy you lonely academics! In my department, "pulling together and sharing our fears and frustrations" seems to be an unwritten part of the job description. Now, this is all well and good if you like your colleagues well enough to be their bosom buddies, but it's torture if you don't. Oh, don't get me wrong--most of them are fine people and first-rate colleagues--but my actual friends, the ones I turn to when I want to share my fears and frustrations, tend to be people outside of the university. The result is that I'm seen as an aloof loner, while the person who came up to me in the hallway during my first year and said: "I hear you have local friends! How on earth did you meet them?" is seen as behaving perfectly normally. My advice: those "pods with separate tracks" are a blessing in disguise, because if you want real community, you have to look beyond the academy. There's a whole big wide world out there.
- I think the lonely campus life is a sad reality for some places, and there are lots of legitimate reasons for it being that way. I have worked at major universities 25,000 students strong and little schools with as few as 2000 students. I also think, though, that instead of waiting to be invited to something (which I usually do too), think of being the inviter (invitor?) I worked at a campus once where one of my colleagues, bothered by the same lack of connection, started something on her own called SOFA (Something on Friday Afternoons, or, as it eventually came to be called, Soused on Friday Afternoons). She and a few of her colleagues merely sent out an announcement that they were going to be at a certain fine establishment (aka bar) on Friday and anyone who wanted to come was invited. It is amazing how this thing grew in the three years I was at that school. It eventually evolved into quite a gathering -- semester long schedules were made, people ended up having SOFA's in their homes, end-of -semester barbecues were planned. It wasn't that this original person was that extraordinary a host; she just decided to start somewhere. I am at a campus now where every now and again, a group of us has a margarita "focus group." Again, start small, see where it takes you. You just need someone to get things rolling.
- For years now a group of faculty at my university have been gathering every second Friday at a local Irish pub for our "seminar." We're the "seminarians," of course, and the group which started as 3-4 has become a looser aggregation of 20 or so folks. And, while we were all about the same age at the beginning, all pushing toward tenure, our group now includes old timers and newcomers alike. When a new faculty member joins our department or division, an invite to a "seminar" is proffered, and most come to check it out. The potato skins are free on that first night, and we throw off the cloak of the academy for an hour or so. Most of them come back the next time we meet. Of course we all have friends, families, spouses, dogs, etc. But it's nice to know that the folks you work with, teach alongside, also have your back.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Each of my classes has upwards of 100 students. On every exam there's at least a page of some sort of free-response questions and problems (though there is also a multiple choice section.) I have TAs that help with some of the grading and I'm very grateful for them, but I usually grade most of the free-response portions myself, and it takes a lot of time. All told, I grade about 1600 exams/semester. I used to write explanations in some detail, but now I don't--and I do use the "???" because it at least keeps me from writing, "WTF?!"
Many of my students don't even bother to check the posted key, don't read comments, don't respond to pleas to "come in and see me about this topic--it is critically important and too involved to explain here." The few who care will come in and talk to me and I'll be able to help them. The ones who don't come in, I can only assume, don't care. So, the student who wants more than "???" on the paper needs to face a huge stack of papers on which the same comment will be written 40 times, will be actually read by two students, will be addressed MAYBE by one. Oh, and said student also needs to realize that the comment nearly always addresses something that has been amply discussed and emphasized in class. The instructor writing "???" on papers needs to take a deep breath when a student comes in to talk about it--that's exactly what we should be hoping for. Not that the student comes in to grub for points, but that there is an opportunity to look the kid in the eye and make the SAME DAMN POINT we've been making in class for eight weeks and hope that the eye contact makes it stick this time.
One strategy that I and some friends in other fields have used, with some success, is making a half-sheet, numbered list of common transgressions, and while grading, using those number codes to mark papers. "1" could be mechanical problems such as spelling or grammar, "2" math errors, etc. At some point on the list are "Complete misunderstanding of the point of the question," "Gross error in application of concept," "Irrelevant," etc. Students are either given the list in class (if the problems listed span the entire semester) or it's stapled to the paper as it's handed back (if the list is more specific to one assignment.)
One last thing: a grad school buddy of mine happened to be at a going-out-of-business sale at a hardware store, and picked up a rubber stamp with the word "FERTILIZER." I don't know if he ever had the nerve to use it on a student's paper, but I'm sure it must have been comforting knowing it was there.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
So I'm out.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
To the Needy Job Applicant. (And Someone Breaks the "No Flake" Rule Within Minutes of It Going Into Effect!)
Friday, November 9, 2007
I'll say this much about the students: At least they go away. Tools like you outlast your welcome at "hello." That is, of course, until you surreptitiously pack up that hip bike messenger bag of yours in June to wave pom-poms for our cross-town rivals, the Flying Blowholes of Supercilious State.
I got a thought for you, Skipper. So hold on tight.
Instead of preening over your iBook, admiring your reflection in that liquid crystal pool of blather you barfed up for the rest of us, why don't you pull your head out of your buttsocket and look around. You sound every bit as immature as the 18-year-old snowflake who sashays across my path in the middle of a lecture to fire a spent can of Red Bull in the trashcan. Sure, she's a self-absorbed idiot. But understand this. She's 18. Someday she'll wise up. What's your fucking excuse?
You junior faculty kill me. Instead of dropping to the deck to throw a tantrum every time Grampa Emeritus gets his Depends in a twist, why don't you consider why he has something invested in Pond Scum U. I mean, can you blame him? No doubt, some doddering codger sporting a mortarboard showed him the ropes decades before you were squatting in your PacMan Underoos mashing fruit roll-ups in your piehole and rubbing one out for Smurfette.
If Pops wants to point something out, if he wants to give some advice - useless or not - who the hell are you to cop an attitude?
Here's the funny part. I'm your age. I've got Gen-X cred up to my eyeballs. I bleed flannel. The Rolling Stones make me gag. But that arrogance of yours just makes me cringe. I'm not even arguing with your shopworn bulletpoints. You're probably right on most of them. It's your table manners that suck.
And another thing. That simplistic article you attached on Gen-Xdom was three lollipops shy of childish. Is that the caliber of twaddle you use with your students? Mercy. You must really give those kids a run for their money in the classroom. Listen up, Professor KoolGuy, those doe-eyed freshman clustering in your wake as you saunter across the quad. The ones giving you righteous props for that fine retro toque you're sporting in August. After they collect their As in June, they shut the door to their dorm room, toss your textbook in the trashcan, and laugh so hard at your shit they wet themselves. Then they paste the whole mess on Facebook.
I've got some "instant feedback" for ye. Stop confusing this sprawling bureaucratic DeathStar U with a Dot.com start-up. Those desk tumors in administration were singing the same song when they were flipping peace signs and wearing icky headbands in the 60s. And they sounded every bit as immature then as you do now. You want innovation? That happens in your classroom. On your own two feet. If you think glittery bells and whistles like PowerPoint and your dumb-ass academic kittyblog are relevant, ask the kid dozing off in the back row if that shit matters to him?
You ain't teaching anyone here. Please take an iron to that oh-so ironic T-shirt of yours, have a cup of coffee with the old man down the hall, and for crissakes, get your head in the game.
- What you have just taught me is that you need to wake the hell up. You think your generation is the first to worry about retirement? To hate committee work? To be head-explodingly frustrated by the bureaucratic structure? To want modern classroom and office equipment? You haven’t expressed one original thought, except that you want academic recognition for a blog. Ever heard of “peer review”? Get over yourself.
- The Gen-X post reminded me of a discussion I had earlier in the week with a friend, in which she told me about all of the "how to interact with 20-somethings" books currently being marketed to businesses. According to these manuals, recent graduates need to be praised, not reprimanded, which in practice translates to praising someone for coming in on time, rather than reprimanding them for coming in late. Praising a worker, in other words, for meeting the minimum requirements of the job. I can sympathize with Gex-X's dislike of committees and paperwork (who doesn't?), but I'm not sure that this is a generational thing. Saying "If we are moving on, perhaps you haven't done enough to try to understand us and are just trying to make us fit in to your mold" sounds suspiciously like a "special [faculty] snowflake" argument to me.
- I want to thank the Gen-X dude or dudette for making it so perfectly clear that he/she is just a perfect little X-shaped snowflake. Someone else too precious for words, someone else everyone has to make sure is taken care of. Grow up.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
- I hate to be rude, but to those who replied in support of the "I'm a precious little snowflake" essays, well, you just keep telling yourselves you're doing them a service, "bridging" to critical thinking, blah, blah, blah. But it's bullshit. I teach freshman composition at a major university. I know the resistance to participate in anything that looks like work. I know that their eyes tend to glaze when not discussing Facebook and how awesome it was when they threw up on themselves twice last weekend. And I know that they haven't a clue about analytical writing. Or any writing, really. But I also know I'm not going to cater to their ignorance, nor am I going to let them float through my class still thinking that life is all about them. How do I do it? I teach only analytical writing. I don't worry about personal narratives, reports, or "relating their experiences" to class material. That will all earn you a failing grade in my class. We work hard on analytical thought throughout. I make them read tough essays with big ideas that appear to have nothing to do with their lives, and I make them discuss. And you know what? They do. And when they find out I'm serious about analytical writing--usually around the time they hand in a paper that does try to focus on narrative or reporting and promptly get a "D" or worse--they step up to the plate. They work hard, and they come away with skills they didn't have. And I think that prepares them far more than any coddling, pampering, or other "flaky" tactics will.
And, adding a voice to the "just a job" debate...
- I guess you can count me among the senior faculty, and therefore someone closer to Prof. Mushy Brain's age than to, say, Hannah Montana's. I have bitten my tongue for a few days while this site and many others (BTW, academic blogs are the most painful things on the web, and I'm including Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge), and I'm sickened by academics who think of their careers as "just a job." You probably are tired of hearing thoughts on this topic, but I think this mindset is to blame for why there is a divide between junior and senior faculty. I must confess that I think of this place as MY college. I go to the games, work freshman orientation, and tell everyone I know that they should think about having their kids, nieces, nephews and neighbors check us out when it's time. I've had jobs, you know? But my teaching, my research, my mentoring, that's something bigger, better, more. The younger faculty in my department are more attached to their alma maters than they are to here. On Friday afternoons, our faculty committee sponsors a series of open get-togethers for students, faculty, and administrators. They are sometimes a little formal, with an agenda of items from the student government, but usually they're just Swedish meatballs, punch, and a lot of mixing of people. Last Friday I was talking to two freshmen who were quizzing me about two new members of our department and I sort of looked around to see if either was there. What I did see was a group of faculty members, most of them my age or older, and not a soul - save the students - south of 40. And that's how it always is here. We love the new blood when faculty come to us fresh with ideas, but I at least just wish they'd invest more of themselves with this place, this career, OUR college. It seems to me, reading the "just a job" postings I've seen this past week, that it's likely not going to happen with this generation of academics.
While the baby boomers trust the academic institution, Gen-X has grown up without that kind of trust. Why? How many of you honestly think we will get social security when we retire? (even though we will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars into a soon-to-be-bankrupt system over the course of our lives)
We don't like committees - they slow us down. We are used to having our ideas heard instantly and valued by our peers, and can't stand the time it takes for ideas to trickle through five levels of bureaucratic hierarchy to reach anyone who can actually act on them.
For a generation who wants instant feedback to wait seven years for their institution to give them "feedback" on our job performance (tenure), is maybe just testing our patience a bit much. In this article reference I included it actually says "An effective mentoring relationship with them [Gen-Xers] must be as hands-off as possible. Providing feedback on their performance should play a big part, as should encouraging their creativity and initiative to find new ways to get tasks done." How about giving pre-tenure reviews every year so that we can see we are on track or not on track? That would be effective mentoring.
As a tenured Gen-Xer at an academic institution (where I have managed to last for five whole years), I feel completely stifled by the unnecessary difficulty involved in a) having an idea be heard by the folks that run the college, b) getting new technology in our classrooms, c) obtaining an upgrade to my computer (more layers of ridiculous paperwork and upper level decision making), d) being recognized for non-traditional forms of scholarship (like, for example, writing a nationally-read blog in my field).
Gen-Xers want to be recognized for their accomplishments, not ignored. If we are moving on, perhaps you haven't done enough to try to understand us and are just trying to make us fit in to your mold. You might even consider that we have something to teach you.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
- We all know that special snowflakes don't lift a finger unless something directly affects them. If I tell them to write about gender constructions, no one is going to pay attention. If I tell them to write about the gender-specific toys they played with as a child, they usually do the assignment. While it might not help to discourage "special snowflake-ness," I am trying to work with what I've got, and what I've got are a bunch of cranky teenagers who respond best when I appeal to their narcissism and self-involvement. I'm sorry if that causes problems for you, but for me, it's sort of like victory.
- I admit it—I do assign “Special Snowflake Essays.” Two of them! The first asks the little darlings to describe their identity. And yes, they’re Christians and Cowboys and Goths, oh my! The second asks them to explain what made them that way. Of course, they freak out. “You mean I have to explain this?” It completely blows their little minds that they have to sell me on WHY they’re precious instead of merely claiming that it’s who they are. Once that’s done, they have to write a third essay which explains how another person would react to the same kinds of stimulus, and why those people have turned out exactly as “special” and average, as my little snowflakes. The snowflakes recognize that their beauty is short-lived, and they will soon join the masses of other snowflakes who came before them. They crunch delightfully under my boots! So yes, I do assign “Special Snowflake Essays” and I suffer through grading them, but in the end, they will all be assimilated into the big frozen Borg cube that is academic writing.
- No, I will not stop assigning essays that ask my special snowflakes to draw on their own life experiences. I don't assign them because they're easy; I assign them because I believe in their value. I don't ask my students for "the most important day of their lives," because I don't give a crap. But I do ask my students to analyze the class material by drawing on relevant examples from their own lives. This encourages critical thinking about themselves, which lord knows they need. I am careful to explain to them that they will NEVER be allowed to write the word "I" in another class for as long as they live. Whether they care or listen is another matter. If they are writing about themselves when you want them to write about Flannery O'Connor, just take off 20 points for every "I" or "me" you see--or just flunk them.
- I am overrun with students whose lack of motivation to do the work is the direct result of thinking they "can't write." Not only do I have to encourage them to write, but I also have to encourage some kind of pleasure and confidence in the activity. Personal writing usually gets kids to realize that they have more freedom, strength, and value in their own writing than their high school teachers led them to believe. I don't want to hear about their awesome little lives, but I do want to use personal writing as a bridge into critical thinking and analysis.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Please stop giving students essay assignments that involve them talking about their super-special lives and all the interesting things that they've done, and how important and fascinating they are. Please. This generation has already been brought up to think that each and every one of them is the shiniest, special-est snowflake in the universe and that they deserve all of the attention, praise and As that we can hand out.
When you give these assignments, it encourages this attitude and makes them think that it's okay to write essays like this for EVERYTHING. Yeah, I know "Write about the most important day of your life" or whatever is a really easy assignment to give, but don't you find the pages and pages of winning touchdowns, prom princess moments and accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior just a little bit fucking tedious? Where's the critical thinking? What are you doing? The rest of us then get these obnoxious personal anecdotes for essays on everything from Jane Eyre to Kubrick films to Russian history...
Every time I read one of these treatises on how "my mom is the most heroic person I've ever met" or an account of "the day I rescued someone when I was a lifeguard" or, for the love of god, "that really scary time I thought I was pregnant" (not kidding - got one of those just last semester), it just reminds me that most folks between the ages of 18 and 22 simply don't have anything interesting to say, have zero life experience, and are as self-involved as such utterly boring human beings can possibly be. In short, it makes me dislike the little ones more than I should.
Look - just spend ten minutes coming up with an assignment - ANYTHING but this. I'm tired of whipping out my angry green pen and writing "your first public boner is not an appropriate topic for an essay on Flannery O'Connor" or the more concise, "relevance??!!!" all over these diary entries that somehow ended up in my grading pile.
A New Student Hero To Annoy Us: The Arrival of Alphabitch! (Plus Someone Sneaks In Some More "Junior Faculty" Juice.)
Monday, November 5, 2007
We've published a bunch of poems that we call "academic haiku" because we liked the hard K sounds in that. Check out these past winners, for example.
Anyway, we've been collecting "real" haiku that have come in, and here are some now. Enjoy the flava:
One student: slacker.
Another, just a dumb creep.
Both: grubbing for grades.
Car stuck in snowbank.
Sprained knee, skiing accident.
running scared from job to job,
no place to call home.
Freeway fliers, simple needs.
Gas, coffee, students.
There is no compound.
Just a virtual commune.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Who Says There Are No Answers to Academic Questions? Three Readers Take on The Dreaded Book Report Problem. Installment #1 of "Big Thursday Question."
Q: How in God's name do you get your students to stop writing book reports and start writing actual papers with actual theses?
A1: I'm actually fairly sensitive about the thesis statement problem, having struggled immensely in my lit classes (which I loved, regardless) as an undergrad. I don't think I finally started to feel confident as a writer until I entered my doctoral program, where things finally started coming together for me. Therefore, I try to be generous when dealing with book report-type papers. After all, even the best critics summarize plot and other events when performing their analyses. If we present our students with critics who do that, how do we fault them for doing the same? Obviously, the problem is when students drone on and on, summarizing what we already know about "Moby Dick" and then jam the stake right through our collective hearts: They title their papers "Moby Dick." I have found Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's" 'They Say/I Say': The Moves that Matter In Academic Writing" to be particularly helpful on the the issue. They supply a series of templates that students can modify to fit their own writing, helping them move into a mode of argumentation a little more smoothly. The book seems somewhat elementary, but most students I've worked with--at the freshman comp level, mind you--have found it helpful. If they don't have thesis statements in their initial drafts, I can point them back to that book--as could you. And if they don't revise accordingly, following Graff and Birkenstein's paint-by-number examples, I'd say fail them. Fail them all!
A2: I build my literature classes around the idea of asking questions. We begin the semester with a challenging poem -- usually something fairly modern that they wouldn't have seen before -- and instead of my telling them anything about it, I simply instruct them to read it and make a list of questions. They pair up, see which questions they can answer, and ask more questions. With their lists of questions, we can talk about the 3 basic types of questions about literature (as I define them): Questions that could be answered by knowing more background information -- about culture, history, writer's biography, etc.; Questions that could probably be answered by reading more closely, more carefully, or (in the case of a longer text) further; Questions that could probably only be answered by analyzing or interpreting the text. We discuss some major branches of literary theory, but primarily in the context of what questions each theory asks about literature (How do socioeconomic issues shape the characters' interactions? What is significant about George taking on the typically feminine role of caring for the baby?). This sets the stage for what I tell my students all semester: scholars -- your professors, the people writing your texts and journal articles -- don't know all the answers. Scholars know which questions to ask. The class is then built around the students asking -- and struggling to answer -- questions. We are discussion-based from the beginning, and the discussions come directly from the students' questions (I only put forth my own questions if I think they are critical to understanding the text, and no one in the class has gotten there. I'm always surprised by how rarely this happens.) I make it clear that the "Questions that could be answered by reading more closely, carefully, or further" are questions that students should attempt to answer before coming to class. Once it becomes clear that if they bring those questions to class, I am not going to answer them, the students usually buckle down and get to work. When it comes time for the papers, I ask the students to write several questions about course texts. They work in groups and with me to evaluate the questions -- are they likely to have a complex answer? Is there likely to be an answer at all? When the student has a good, solid question, I explain that the paper should answer that question, and show the reader how the student came to the answer. The thesis to the paper is the answer to the question. Since students are comfortable with asking questions, with struggling to answer questions on their own, and with accepting that there may be multiple plausible interpretations of a text, most of them do relatively well. Even the worst papers I see are more complex than book reports.
A3: The key is to encourage your students write about something that genuinely interests them, even if the course as a whole doesn't. I've had wonderful results in my course on Intro-Astronomy-for-Students-Not-Majoring-in-Science, ever since a Fashion Merchandising major wrote her paper on space suits. The paper was great, and I learned a lot from it. She'd clearly gone out of her way to learn something about the science taught in the course, and to relate it to what she'd learned in her major. For example, her paper covered why the outer layer of a space suit is made of Kevlar (to protect against micrometeoroids), why the middle layers are Gore-Tex (for thermal insulation, since with no air in space to even out heating, an astronaut bakes in the Sun and freezes in the shade), why the inner layer is Neoprene (to absorb body moisture, since astronauts exert themselves greatly because the suit is so stiff because it's pressurized to prevent the astronaut from getting the bends)---even down to the details of the in-suit drink bottle and the modified adult diaper. Now, I give my students a list of suggested topics, sorted by majors. I also remind them that these are only suggestions: they're free to make up their own topics, which is why the list is always growing. Here's a sample of the list:
- Psychology: Perception and Illusion through the Telescope / Stress During Long-Term Spaceflight
- Education: Astronomy lesson plans for elementary / middle / high school
- Biology: Could Earth Bacteria Survive in the Atmosphere of Venus?
- Social Sciences: Human Mass-Migration into Space
- History: American Rocket Pioneers / Astronomy of the Ancient Egyptians
- Physical Therapy/Kinesiology: Spaceflight and the Human Body
Saturday, November 3, 2007
- Start showing some video. I mean it, man, I want to see some of that TMZ shit on here, Lindsay Lohan eating a prune, Nicole Kidman all glassy-eyed rubbing her head on that honky-tonky husband of hers, Slappy White doing his show from the Sands in 1965.
- Get with the times, man, and hire yourself some needlenose from your computer science department to get the format of the page together. Some days you got the margarita glasses going, now you just this shit-brown thing with the sideways building. Too arty! Big and bold. American flags and fields of hay and strippers with guns and, well, you get my drift. Boldness is what goes over big here in Texas, and I'm sure it'll sweep the rest of those damn dull rectangle states y'all probably live in.
- Put the focus on the students, not just how they're bad at education, but how smelly they are, how badly they dress, and why can't they run a comb through their hair. Let's go personal. Hey, on that other site, some rotter called my class "a good place to catch a nap." Yeah, well, we'll see how my new airhorn goes over the first time I see some candy-coated co-ed start to nod off. Man, I'll make 'em jump and start running until they hit the Red River. Then they're on their own.
- I see you got "Big Question Thursday," you're trying out. I give you snaps for a new idea. But also add, "Big Butt Wednesday." Use one of those new cameraphones to capture a big butt on campus, student, groundskeeper, but most likely some suit from the Administration building. Go ahead and blow those pics up to monster size and post them. You won't believe how your hits will go up. People is always searching Google for "butts," "asses," and so on.
- I got one more before I have to back to the lab and put some whup'ass on those nutty grad students. How about you take RYS on the road. Get yourselves a Handycam something or other, and start knocking on faculty doors. Go to the source. Walk in on Dr. So-and-So and say, "What about them students? Ain't they the worst? How come you're crying? Don't you like my belly?" You get my drift. Quit waiting for the world to come to you, get out there and drum up some content. I see those people on the TV do it all the time. Shove a camera and a microphone in front of Dewey Dumbshit from Sociology or whatever and find out what he really thinks. "RATE 'Em, Baby!"
See. It ain't hard. I spent 9 minutes on this and I came up with 20 ideas better than you ever had in your lives. And I'm not even breathing hard.
Listen, get back to me on this shit right away. Last time I wrote you didn't say a damn thing.
Friday, November 2, 2007
- I'd recommend that Nina, or anyone else wondering about the profession, check out an excellent article from a couple of years ago that appeared in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum. In it, the writer says, "My experiences have led me to the inescapable conclusion that colleagues considering their professorship as just a job, as a way to make a living, will be not-so outstanding - my former dean's euphemism for lousy - teachers. To become an excellent professor requires genetic aptitude, which is created in a person's DNA at the time of conception by the fusion of a maternal with a paternal gamete, a process exemplifying the divine creator's signature of a higher calling."
- The academy is most emphatically not "just a job." I've had jobs; in fact, I worked in the "real world" for many years before switching to academia. In a job, you have a boss who tells you what to do, and at the end of the day you get to punch a clock and go home. There is a fairly clear distinction between "my" time and the "job's" time. I've been in this second career for about a decade, and I'm at a small college that emphasizes teaching. During the academic terms, I have very little time I can call my own. I am constantly thinking about class preps, or grading papers, or planning the next exam or assignment, nearly every waking hour. It is demanding and it can at times be frustrating, but anyone who tries to tell you that it is "just a job" ought to get out of the profession and go wash dishes at the local greasy spoon. That's a job.
- Whether or not a career in academia is "just a job" is entirely up to you! You have probably seen enough (and read enough here) to know what you are getting yourself into, and want it anyway. You will have days where it takes every bit of your self-discipline not to ask the poor idiot sitting in your office how he or she got into college without knowing what a decimal point is, or that Mexico is not one of the United States of America. You will be discouraged by the students who skip class because of a hangover, then come to your office and want a private make-up lecture. What you don't read about so much on this blog are the days where one of your students tells you that they love your class, that they are learning so much, and that they have found their own calling because of it. And that's fine, because this blog is for venting, and we desperately need to do that sometimes. So you will have hellish days during which you fantasize about early retirement or winning the lottery and not giving ANY of it to the university, and you will have wonderful days during which you can’t believe you are getting paid for having so much fun. Most days will be somewhere in the middle. But if academia is your calling, you understand that it’s not really about you, and you will never be bored, and it will NEVER be “just a job.”
And now after years of grad study and with a focus on the future, the last thing I want to be told is that a career in academia is "just a job." It's not worth more than that?
Thursday, November 1, 2007
The Sun Did Come Up This Morning. Either That, Or We're Seeing The Giant Fireball That Will Finally Bring Closure To the Great Divide.
I think a lot of the venom directed at the Gumdrops has more to do with their narcissistic tone than with their job hunting. I think every junior faculty member should be on the lookout, if not obsessively. I think what’s offensive to many older faculty who have put the time into a department is the attitude that what we’ve built is merely a low-status stepping stone to some imagined academic Valhalla.