Friday, November 30, 2007

Some Last Day Suggestions From the Center For Touchy-Feelyness.

Like many campuses, ours has a Center whose purpose is to promote teaching and learning. I won't even get into the irony of a college that has to have a special center to promote *teaching and learning*!

But this center does have some events and resources that have been somewhat useful to me in the past. One of the services they provide is sending teaching suggestions periodically through a listserv. Very occasionally these have proved useful to me; most often I read them and delete, as the suggestions are things I already know, or that are not appropriate to my field or my classes. Most of the time, the submissions are not particularly memorable, for good or bad. The most recent one, though, stopped me in my tracks:

The last day of class can be hectic for students as well as instructors. This is a stressful time for all of us, and students may lose their focus just trying to make it to the end of the semester. Many instructors feel compelled to squeeze in those extra gems of knowledge on the last day. There are,however, more productive ways you can spend your time. One suggestion is a last day of class party. Have fun and plan some closing activities.

WTF? A "last day of class party" is a "more productive way you can spend your time"?!? A way to keep students from "los[ing] their focus"? The message goes on to list other variously educational and touchy-feely things we can do to wrap up the semester.

Maybe I'm hopelessly old-fashioned, naive, or pedantic (or maybe all three!) but I just can't believe that the last day of class--at least in a course with some actual content--isn't best spent maybe reviewing that content, or reinforcing concepts, or making connections with the earlier material, or, I don't know, helping students prepare for the final exam. Then again, it seems a lot of classes here (though not those in my department) don't bother to have final exams either.

A lot of my students seem to think that: (1) nothing really happens (should happen) during the first week of classes, (2) nothing really happens (should happen) during the last week of classes, (3) they shouldn't have required assignments or exams during the week before or the week after a holiday or break, (4) final exams are optional, and (5) they shouldn't be tested on anything that wasn't said out loud in class.

In short, a lot of them appear to think themselves entitled to at least a B for showing up in class at least half the time and breathing in and out. They take it as an affront when we actually start presenting material on the first day of classes ("What? You're not going to just pass out the syllabus and let us go?") and meet on the last day ("None of my other classes are meeting that Monday.") I can only assume their other profs are the ones saving the last day for cupcakes, letters to next semester's students, and a big group hug.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Oh, We Get Lots of Lists.

We get a lot of lists sent to us, funny final exam stories, 10 outrageous lies students tell, you probably know the drill. But the one we get all the time is this one, a list of between 10-50 funny things for professors to do on the first day of class. (Our favorite entry is this one: After turning on the overhead projector, clutch your chest and scream "My pacemaker!")

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.

  1. 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."

  2. Whenever anyone asks a question, just reply: "I don't know. What does your monkey think?"

  3. 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."

  4. 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!"

  5. 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!"

  6. 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."

  7. Pull aside a student and whisper, "That guy behind you? Man, he looks crazy!"

  8. 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.

  9. When anyone else is speaking, tap the top of your head with your palm. Stop when they stop, and then smell your hand.

  10. 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."

Ralph from Rutabaga Ranch Revels in Retirement. Recommends Against Restless Reaching.

I dare say I'm one of the older readers here, retired for 5 years now after 37 years as a professor, the last 25 at a large research university in NYC. I've left that behind now, and live on what you might call a "gentleman's farm" in upstate NY where I raise tomatoes, potatoes, rutabagas, and occasionally the finest squash in the colonies. I've not written to you before, but after having read this site and many other academic blogs, I couldn't help myself.

I believe I reached the top of my profession, articles, books, awards, and a certain notoriety in my field. I published 12 books during my academic career, 8 of them solo. The last one, the one we call the "BIG" one, was nominated for a national award. I only mention it so I can reveal this. It sold 412 copies over 5 years, and I daresay that many of those rest in libraries uncracked to this day.

Sometimes at conferences people would recognize me. Maybe one person would. My work was important in my own life, but hardly at all in anyone else's. I was ambitious, sought tenure and promotion, and found that there was no reward for either. I wanted to make a mark, but I discovered that a scholar has so little value in our culture, that my ambition was mostly wasted. I lived in an expensive and wonderful city for most of those years, and while my salary was large compared to the AAUP averages nationwide, I could barely afford to insure and park my car and get a dozen or so bottles of good port a month.

When I look back on the charging I did all those years, I just chuckle now. There's nothing up there, darlings, at the top of the ladder. Not if you're looking for acclaim or respect from without. It's true, what I did rewarded me personally, but that was not something I realized until I was nearly gone from the academy.

I read these academic blogs where the young scholars are looking for respect, notice, for their work to mean something. And I am wowed at their professionalism and achievement. In my day, one never heard of graduate students with publications and awards. Now it's commonplace. Even before I left the university I would sit in junior faculty offices and marvel at the tremendous new insight they brought to my tired old field. I think they should pursue their scholarship with vigor.

But I must tell you, unless you're studying celebrity culture or high finance, your work better fill you with pride, because nobody will ever care about it, not even one dram.

I don't say this to draw your wind, but to let you know that it makes sense to focus on the elements of the job that bring you personal happiness. Don't worry about what others think. The truth is that almost nobody will ever think of you, not even if you publish widely. Do it for yourself, and quit thinking about being ahead or behind of your peers - or even long-gone scholars like me.

I had a wonderful career, but too much of it was wasted worrying. While I was at a top drawer university, I always wondered if I should go somewhere else, to the west coast, or maybe the Midwest. I was wooed several times at a large school in Texas. The questions were with me my whole career. Will I get a good job. Will I impress my mentors. Will I publish the dissertation. Will I rise. Will I get tenure. Am I good enough. What about another book. Am I better than So-N-So.

It was for nothing. So-N-So had his own worries. Leave him and them to it. Do it for you, and quit frantically reaching for the top rungs of the ladder. What's waiting up there is not what you're chasing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Chiefiest of all Chief Correspondents - Weepy Wayne from Waterloo - Waxes On Why We're So Woeful!

Regarding the question of academic unhappiness. Without question, there are worse jobs out there. I know. I had one of them. I was at the bottom end of the construction trade for 10 years before working my up from a community college, to a state university, to a private college for my graduate degree. My grad experience was comprised of long hours, genuine poverty, sketchy urban housing, malnutrition, and a lack of genuine human contact. Having said that, I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. I sacrificed a great deal for something I considered worthwhile, and it showed me what I was made of.

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

The Unhappiness Found on Academic Blogs.

I've been reading the academic blogosphere, including RYS, over the last few months, and I don't understand why everyone is so bitter about academia when it was their choice to enter.

I understand professors complaining about students anonymously. Students are incredibly aggravating, and that complaining doesn't mean professors aren't fulfilled in their jobs. But I'm puzzled by posts like "Is graduate school a fraud?" You're entitled to your opinion, naturally, but if you think so why do you go? There are so many more depressing things you could be doing.

So many academic blogs seem to be written by young professors complaining about how they don't want to do their research and how evil the tenure application process is and how unfair the profession is.

Aren't they at all happy about what they do? Aren't there other things to do on the Internet?

I have to admit that I am not in academia, but the statement "you're not in it and if you were you'd see how miserable it is" does not constitute an answer to my question. I don't see why people want to be unhappy with their lives.

Am I just missing the joke?

Monday, November 26, 2007

More Insane Faculty Demands Regarding Temperature and Perversion.

Dear Heads of Seriously Full of Itself University,

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.

When we started the academic haiku feature last year, we never imagined the controversy, the alarm, the high drama of it all. Yes, we're familiar with what a haiku really is. No, we don't care. Academic haiku, at least here on RYS, are short-ish, somewhat enigmatic, focused on the academy, and usually a little silly or mean.

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.
Spanish moss sways in live oaks
Outside the window.

Still, we can not have
Lecture outdoors. Your whining
Face ruins my view.


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."


precious snowflakes come
summer's serenity gone
freshman infestation


In my office
The Monday before Thanksgiving –
Utter silence.

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.

I look around and wonder.
Let me consider.
Publish or perish!
Rake in that grant cash, bitches!
Teaching gets short shrift.

Students wander in
Dead-eyed, dead-headed, lost.
"Do we have to read?"

Fuck it. The blender calls --
"Margaritas all around!"
Don't forget the salt.

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!

Hey, RYS fools:
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

Where A Reader Charts A Course We're Considering Ourselves.

From what I can tell, a steady diet of arrogance, ignorance, and sense of entitlement makes your balls grow really big.

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.

Today's academic haiku entry is not a haiku. We've discussed this on the site before. When we actually did publish some haiku, not a peep was heard from anyone. Nobody wrote to say, "Now. THAT'S a haiku!" Or: "Thank you for the REAL haiku!" (We really liked the one that started "There is no compound.")

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:


graduate student,
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,
junior professors,
tenured old timers,
and adjuncts:

is it
worth it?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Smart Women and The Feeling of Fraud.

I felt like a fraud for years. This feeling of defrauding the world, of not being as smart or together as everyone thought I was, became the most intense during the five years immediately following my undergraduate degree: during my master's program, my stint in industry, and two subsequent years I spent as an instructor, teaching in an area not quite within my expertise. I always felt like I had to work harder to compensate for the gap between what people thought of me and my own self-assessment. I also always berated myself for not working hard enough at this endeavor, fearing that someone would catch on to my inadequacies and expose me to the world for the fraud I knew I was.

Then, for reasons I don't recall, I read Barbara Kerr's Smart Girls, Gifted Women. And I had a paradigm shift. I saw myself in those pages. The pattern of being certain that I was less phenomenal than everyone thought I was, and working hard to compensate for it--there it was. Other women did the same thing! Kerr reported that the result of this effort to compensate resulted in women in this position actually doing fabulous work.

I passed the book along to my sister and some friends, and they reacted the same way. They had secretly felt like frauds all along, and were as surprised as I was that this was really a pattern among smart women, that it led to our success. I mean, come on. I was in a full-time teaching position at a nice private college with only a master's degree. Clearly, I was doing something right!

So I gave myself a break and took stock of my accomplishments. I was shocked to see how much I'd driven myself to do out of fear. And so I decided to go ahead, get that Ph.D., and choose a topic not out of concern for seeming good enough or smart enough, but just something that I would enjoy and find rewarding on a personal level. So I did,and I continue to make fantastic accomplishments (publications, cool speaking opportunities, and a tenure-track job)--but without all that fear and self-hating. I seriously think that reading that book at the right time saved me from what would have been years of therapy.

I still have to remind myself now and then that I'm okay, that I'm not defrauding anyone. I still teach things slightly outside of my field now and then, and I just tell myself that even though I'm not the world's foremost expert in Subject X, I still know WAY more about it than my students, and so it's all good.

So, to my peeps who feel like frauds: You're probably much more amazing than you realize. You rock!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Oh, Deer."

Oh, I'm sorry, was it inconvenient of me to schedule class on the first day of hunting season? Right, I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was an "unofficial" state holiday. I'm just wondering, how can you expect to nail a deer in the woods when you can't seem to find your textbook in your car?

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

Whether You Get It on the Inside or Outside, The Lonely Academic Doesn't Need to Be Alone.

  • 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

Lonely. Another Big Thursday Question.

I guess the kind of school you're at matters, but where I am - a modest state university in the northeast - I feel completely alone in my enterprise.

There's no collegiality, no community. Our department is a mix of junior and senior faculty, adjuncts, and grad students, and I can't recall ever seeing any of them working together, lunching together, or even hanging out.

It feels like we are all riding in our own little pod on our own separate tracks. We teach our own classes, mentor our own students, and then get the hell off of campus as soon as possible.

It wasn't what I expected two years ago when I took my first t-t job. I was flush from a great grad school experience where the group of us pulled together, shared our fears and frustrations, and made it through together. I know that older faculty likely have families and a big network of friends, but it doesn't seem anybody here has invested much time or energy in the campus relationships.

Maybe I'm naive, but I thought there would be a community wherever I took a job. Is it just this place, I wonder?

Q: Is it like this for you, too?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is "???" Not Enough? Well, We Have One More Level of Feedback For You, Darlin'.

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.

One Prof Gets Wise And Offers Her Students the Secret To Plagiarizing!

One of these days, I'm going to walk into a freshman composition class, and it's going to happen. I'm going to stop giving the "plagiarize and I will cut off your naughty bits" lecture and just sit them down and tell them how to do it effectively.

Because I am tired of the insult to my intelligence that cutting and pasting the first thing that pops up on Google is. I'm going to say to them "Hello, class. Today we're going to learn the important life skill of *not* getting caught. First, I'd like you all to pick up your bags and follow me to the library. What's that, you ask? Well, once upon a time, people couldn't Google things -- it was before the Internet -- and so they wrote lots and lots and lots of things down, and someone printed them and bound them and those things were called books. And then someone had the bright idea of gathering them all together in one place, and that was called a library."

Then, my class will follow me, duckling fashion, because they wouldn't want to seem to know where the library is. As we step inside the doors, I'll explain to them the magic of the library. "Do you know what this is? This is a place where knowledge that is not available online lives. So if, when you panic and decide that just giving me a Wikipedia entry is not a good idea, just take a nice deep breath and come here instead. You might just get away with it.

Because here's the thing -- in order to nail your little ass to the wall, I have to find what you copied. And my time is limited. So if I can't just Google it and find it in an hour or so, I might just give up."

And then I will give them milk and cookies, and let them go back to bed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why Is It Whenever Somebody Leaves It's Never Wicked Walter?

I'm beginning to side with the people who called you out the first time, saying that your sympathies are obviously with senior faculty. Seriously--how many more senior faculty tantrums are you going to air--all of them are based on the same logic--"I'm special, my scholarly 'community' is special, and you junior faculty don't tell us how special we are enough!" Fine, we got that message four posts ago.

There are legitimate issues that junior faculty face, and it's not all about being a gumdrop or demanding higher salaries. But you seem abjectly unwilling to air these issues, instead issuing post after post of senior faculty taking a big smelly shits on people who have less power than they do--either adjuncts or junior faculty. It's unseemly. And, ironically, that's why I am done at RYS.

My feelings aren't hurt that you didn't post my stuff. Who cares? The world can live without my tantrums, and somebody much funnier than me will come along and smack back. What I'm finally beginning to see here is that my usual batch of daily glee at reading somebody's frustration with their students, so like my own frustration, is actually rather unsavory. The self- important "you kids should listen to us as we are so so special" crap that senior faculty are handing down to junior faculty is the same crap I always enjoyed about the site--only directed at students instead of me. And now I have to stop reading for two reasons.

First of all, getting tenure and teaching your first years are hard and demoralizing. I don't need to know that my senior faculty hate my guts because I failed to kiss their asses to the extent they believe themselves entitled, the same way my students hate my guts because I'm not kissing their asses either. I don't need the pressure of worrying I'm not kowtowing enough in addition to worrying I'm not publishing enough. But rest assured, before any of you (obviously senior faculty) moderators get your Depends in a wad, I'll do right by my senior faculty from now on. I'll go into work-- oh! I meant my spiritual calling--today to my office, the crappiest office they could find, to teach my classes, the crappiest classes in the department, and announce to the line of closed doors my senior faculty, the backbone of my department, hide behind every day: "Golly! What a beautiful day! What a fine day to be in this GRAND university! How lucky I am to work with SUCH GREAT colleagues." I'm converted to the way and the light of investing in my institution and investing in my relationships with my senior faculty who have been known to throw such pearls of mentoring wisdom as "the copier's broken" to me on their way to and from the bathroom, their classes, and the parking lot.

How grateful I am that my senior faculty are investing so much in my success that they are willing, at such a great expense to themselves in terms of time and energy, to mentor me away from the broken copier. Every time I ask one of these people to go out for a cup of coffee or lunch they can't because they 'are crashing on something,' and it's not clear to me that's really just their special, giving way of mentoring. If I were doing my job (oops, grand calling), I wouldn't have time for lunch or coffee and if I did I wouldn't waste it on somebody who can't do anything for me, like a junior faculty member. Such mentoring! Closeness like that you just can't buy. I mean, sometimes my senior faculty even wish me a good weekend on the way to the bathroom, the copier (when it's not broken), their classes, or the parking lot. Wow! And some people would equate the special, special relationship I have with them with any other, mere 'work' relationships.

And second of all, I now see that there is no difference between the sniveling that the senior faculty are doing about junior faculty like me and the sniveling I do about students. Intergenerational complaining is an old sport inside and outside of academia, but now that I've seen how self-indulgent the senior faculty sound...I can't be a part of sounding like that any more.

The whining from the senior faculty sickens me: it makes them sound less like scholars and more like spoiled brats, and you bet I'm looking in the mirror, and I don't like a a whole lot about what I've said myself about students. I'm not going to pretend that I've had some sort of soul's awakening here and I'll never complain about students again. But I now see how ugly and entitled all the complaining sounds, and I don't want to do it anymore or read it any more. It's excusable from 18 to 21 year- olds on their RMP, because they are young, and to some degree youth and stupidity go together. In old people, it's just ugly and entitled. I don't want to be either.

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!)

Thank you for applying for a position at our university! I am confident that you will make an important contribution to our academic community, especially given how similar you sound to the little snowflakes already enrolled in this institution. Like you, they believe that their every action is worthy of personal notice and praise!

I deeply apologize for failing to send you a gilded thank-you note for gracing us with your stellar application. We should have done more to encourage you, especially since you couldn't possibly be one of the applicants who mails their application piece by piece, ensuring the greatest possible difficulty for the underpaid staff member who manages the files. Oh, you thought the search committee did that? No. It is a single work-study student making $7.40 an hour, but I apologize for the confusion.

Your confirmation letter wasn't proofread? I suppose that step was overlooked in the five seconds I was given to write it and send it to duplication services. I also realize that I misspelled your middle name on the form letter informing you that you did not, in fact, include a copy of your CV with the application. This is totally unacceptable and I apologize. I really should be able to be more detail oriented as I manage 200 pieces of mail in the three hours between my afternoon classes.

I also would like to extend my regrets regarding the fact that you cannot distinguish between the items we need in order to have a formally complete application with the items that we encourage you to include in order to give us more information on your, no doubt, illustrious intellectual career. You are clearly so talented that there is no reason why we might be interested in additional information on your teaching and research.

Please feel free to call me every day to ask if I have received your last letter of recommendation; I truly have nothing better to do than micromanage your file.


[Officially forged signature
of the Head of the Search Committee]

Friday, November 9, 2007

An Open Letter To Job Committees Everywhere! (The Season Is Truly In Swing.)

For the past few months, and perhaps even longer than that, I have agonized over the job market. For weeks now I have driven myself; my wife; my family; and, quite possibly, my two cats crazy because I have been stressed to the max, ensuring that all of my letters to you are properly formatted and proofread.

Letter addressed to the right person? Check! References the appropriate job? Check! Uses the term “postmodernity” instead of “postmodernism”? Check! Duplicates the exact same bullshit that is in my CV, teaching statement, writing sample, list of prospective courses, and sample syllabi? Check, check, check, check, and check!

And, oh, by the way, is placed on the table next to my checkbook so that I can pay the Post Office an ungodly amount of money to send this stuff to you, knowing that many of you will never acknowledge receiving it? Check and double check!

So what do I get in return? I’ll tell you what: some of the shittiest letters of acknowledgement from about the two percent of you who have responded to me so far. Do you really think that I enjoy—anymore than you do—getting letters of acknowledgement that were so obviously not proofread by anyone?

Honestly, I’m not making this up. I’ve gotten letters referencing jobs that I haven’t applied for; letters telling me at the top, in the first paragraph, to send more stuff only to tell me at the bottom, in the last paragraph, that my application is complete; and letters telling me to send the same damn stuff that I’ve already sent.

So please, do me—and all of us prospective job seekers—a favor: Practice what you fucking preach, and do your homework. Proofread your shit, which is exactly what it is when it’s not proofread.

A Chief Correspondent - With "Flannel Cred" - Throws Down the Smack.

Dear X-Hole,

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 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.

Young and Old Alike Love to Pile On Gen-X Jenny.

  • 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

Two Chief Correspondents Cannot Stay Quiet.

As for the Snowflake essays...

  • 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.

"The X is For eXcellent, Dude!" (And Also eXhausting.)

Perhaps some of the "senior faculty" should read up on understanding "Gen X" (the current generation of junior faculty) and see why it is that we are the way we are.

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

The Snowflake Essays.

  • 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

Putting a Stop to the "Special Snowflake Essays."


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.)

After midterm exams, I decided to curve the grades so that 20% of my class would not score below 40%. Alphabitch, who marches into my class exhausted from her hectic life every MWF, is extremely angry at the outcome. Alphabitch is pre-law. Someday, wearing pink suits and carrying a little dog, she will rule the planet—all of us. In her dreams, she stages a coup in the magic mushroom kingdom and “recruits” the Smurfs into chiseling, rolling, and floating two ton blocks from rocky crags in Greece for construction on her 200 foot image in Santa Fe. By law someday we will all be forced pray to this statue at the sound of the timbrel, or Pink’s latest album.

Alphabitch is not happy with the curve, and she’s angry with me (she’s angry with anyone not speaking with a key turning in his back). She studied hard, and it is not fair that she only gets 4 points on the curve, while her inferiors got 15; she clearly deserves 15 points as well. Though she certainly did not get the highest grade in the class—she scored a B- on an admittedly hard exam—she smells a rat because the curve did not raise all of the students’ grades the same number of points. She informs me, in her ‘agitated lawyer’ voice, that she “has never heard of a curve” like the one I gave the class, and she has even asked one of her professors about it (inevitably the one with his lips on her butt). This professor, who must have been from the department of cosmetics, agrees there is no such curve that awards different amounts of points to different students. Despite the fact that her understanding of a curve has nothing to do with a normal distribution, I am forced to “dialogue” with her so that she does not take her complaint elsewhere.

As a junior faculty who wants to secure “just a job,” I have to get good evaluations, because in this democratic world some 21-year-old iPod-addicted, narcissist’s opinion carries more weight than my own. In order to get good evaluations, I have to radically inflate my grades. In order to even get to the part where I enjoy my job, I have to pamper arrogant students for three more years—and even then I’m not guaranteed tenure.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Why Does Everyone Want To Stop Our Fun? Several Readers Try To Kill "Academic Haiku Friday."

We have really enjoyed the occasional "academic haiku." We know none of them has actually been a haiku. What? You don't think we went to college?

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.
Winter's excuses.


Junior faculty,
running scared from job to job,
no place to call home.


Adjunct faculty.
Freeway fliers, simple needs.
Gas, coffee, students.


There is no compound.
Just a virtual commune.
Margaritas! Salt!

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."

Our new feature, the Big Thursday Question, brought in more mail than we were expecting, and some pieces were extraordinarily thoughtful. Here are the answers we've chosen to share. Many thanks!

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

The Return of Wicked Walter.

It's been quite some time, but Wicked Walter from Waxahachie returns today. After his first post back in August, most readers thought he was a put-on. But, as we sometimes do, we tracked him down. He does exist, and is a professor at a large state school in Texas. (We don't think he's really from Waxahachie, however, because we're pretty sure a nutjob like him would get run out of a nice town like that.) Anyway, Walter is back. You may want to avert your eyes.


What in God's name are you smoking out there on the compound? This site has gone to hell in a hatbox, and I've decided to mobilize myself to save y'all's bacon!

Just this past week I see you let your crazzy-ass, cat-lover nutjobs duke it out with the Depends-wearing old codgers who couldn't chew a decent piece of meat with borrowed teeth. That's a non-starter. Don't let the crazzies have an open forum.

I'm the answer to your problems. I'm neither junior or senior. I'm right in the middle of it all, and I say, quit bickering among yourselves and let's save the venom for the real evil-doers: students, administration, Wanda in the cafeteria, and Roger the I.T. guy with his little screwdrivers and tight trousers.

Seriously, here's what to do to get back on track. You can thank me later. I got a million good ideas, and I'm happy if you just want to name one of your children after me:
  • 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.

Wicked Walter

Some Caution for Naive Nina.

Here's a final installment on the "just a job" discussion. See also: Nina Naive & some first responses.

I know this this is difficult to envision right now, but I suspect there will come a time in your scholarly career where you will need to be able to say "it's just a job." I needed to, anyway. While earlier on RYS a senior faculty poster ridiculed junior faculty as "believing they are the first to discover the joys of friends, family, and pinochle," framing your job as "a just job" at various times as junior faculty helps keep you grounded and sane for several (healthy) reasons that have nothing to do with leisure time.

First, some senior faculty take delight in rubbing your nose in the fact that you are untenured and that they hold the votes to decide your future. If you think your committee is bad, pray you never wind up on a faculty of bullies. I did. If you have to face that, day after day, you will quickly frame your lifelong dream, your calling, into "just a job." Why? Because that way, if the jerks do the worst they can to you at tenure time, they would be taking from you "just a job" instead of your whole life.

Second--and this is a very healthy reason--it is probably not good for your research or for your teaching for you to put too much of your identity into either of them. Whenever I have to deal with some blowhard lecturing me about his deep, personal calling as a teacher, I usually find that the students really can't stand him--and it's nothing to do with how much he demands in the classroom. It's because they know he's gratifying his ego off of them, and there is something vaguely creepy and vampiric about that. They sense he is not there for them; he is there for himself. When you get over the notion that your classroom work is "your calling" in favor of viewing it as collaborative work with students, it hurts a lot less when students act like meatheads and assholes (and they will) and you will be better capable of not letting them ruin the work for you or the students who are neither meatheads or assholes. When you see your research as your work rather than as your calling, it also hurts a lot less when Reviewer #2 writes "This work is vaingloriously insignificant; it is my recommendation that the manuscript be rejected and the authors beaten with sticks."

Gradually, as you come out of your first frantic years as junior faculty, by your third year I found, you will get out of the slump you cause yourself by working too much and worrying too much about tenure to realize that you have your work, rather than "just a job." It is indeed possible to love and devote yourself to your work. I was raised in an ethnic tradition where it is practically sinful to do bad or shoddy work. I find that value helps me do my best in the classroom and as a researcher. It is enough, friend Nina, the work is more than enough, to satisfy that part of you who wants to lose yourself in learning both as a teacher and as a research.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Just a Job? Three Readers Offer Naive Nina Some Insight From the Front Lines.

  • 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.”