27 June 2010

26 June 2010

Vacation photoblogging


I don't go to the beach to lie in the sun. I go to walk in the fog.
I could probably get a similar effect at home by putting on a white noise CD and sticking my feet in a bucket of ice water, then using exfoliating scrub. But the visuals are better at the beach.
I was much closer to this deer than it appears. She woke me up munching brush outside my window.
But I got some sun and some city, too:
Everything is better when there's a feline involved.
This is what geraniums are supposed to look like. Midwestern gardeners, please take note.
It's been great.

23 June 2010

You can't go home again

When I leafed through my undergraduate meanderings looking for suitable material to post, I was reminded of a woman I went to college with. I didn't know her well. We were classroom buddies who occasionally ate lunch together as part of a larger group, but I liked her, though two years after we graduated, she didn't remember me. She has an unusual name, so when I Googled her, I'm confident that I found the right person.

She's living in the town where we went to college. She teaches third grade, and recently bought a house not far from my junior high. It's quite nice: I drove past it yesterday (an unexpected trip to the coast dropped into my lap). A woman was out front watering. The new owner? Her daughter? Roommate? Neighbor? I didn't stop. Twenty-four years is a long time.

I don't think she intended to be a teacher when we were in college. I certainly didn't. Even though I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, I didn't really think about teaching. I wanted to be, I don't know, Simone de Beauvoir or something. I was going to write learned books, not teach freshman comp (actually, I don't teach freshman comp, but the point is that my career path might well have involved a lot of comp, which never crossed my mind back then).

For many reasons, it seems far more plausible to me that I should be teaching elementary school in my home town than that I should be a professor in a very different environment. I am rather stunned by my good fortune, and the hard-headedness of various Younger Selves who made my career possible.

It is not so surprising to various of my friends, even those who have known me longest.

But then, I'm the only one who knows what the journey felt like from the inside. Even my good friends saw far more of the determination than of the self-doubt and sometimes rank terror. The night before I left on my drive cross-country to an ivy-covered grad school, I was convinced that I was ruining my life. Certainly I was correct that I was changing it—not, perhaps, irrevocably, as I probably could have dropped out after a year or two and gone back—but I did drive away, and I did not drop out, and I changed my life.

20 June 2010

Undergrad diary, 2

This incident happened a little later in the final term of my BA. It took place in a class that included some graduate students. There were a lot of these mixed classes at my school, which was a state flagship. I went to college with a fair number of people who, like me, grew up in the same town, and in some cases were professors' children or had grown up with professors as friends of the family. "Jill" was an MA student, a couple of years older than I, whom I had known in high school as the older sister of a friend. "Jane" was a Ph.D. candidate, who looked to me like a returning student, mid-thirties or even forties.

_____________________________
Something weird happend today in NX's class. Jill, a grad student who did her undergrad work here and has a certain reputation already for being good, as well as having a lot of friends, did a presentation in class. It was a pretty straightforward explication de texte, or so it seemed to me (I admit I spent part of the time reading [novel], because I'm so behind). After class, several people, including me, hung around to try to talk to NX. Jane, another grad student, whom I knew from last semester in [other class], was talking to Jill; nobody was paying much attention. NX moved us out in the hall, since another class was coming in.

A few minutes later, Jill came out, in tears, and squeaked at NX, "You've got to help me!" Jane had been accusing her of plagiarism, claiming that she had taken ideas from her, Jane's, thesis, insisting that, since Jill has known the prof Jane is working with since childhood, Jill must also have worked with this prof. I guess the prof is an old family friend. I was trying to melt into the woodwork and not listen, so I didn't hear all that much. I heard Jill say, "She's sick," and heard NX being very soothing and conciliatory, assuring her that she'd done a good job. "I suppose it's a compliment," Jill said after awhile. "Take it as such," NX told her.

And I thought, "This is what I'm getting into?" It won't stop me, of course, and I even think I might be able to take such a thing happening better than Jill did (I hope: perhaps we'll see), but it upset me. It's naive, I know, because of course I know about plagiarism scandals and know that academia is highly competitive, but I thought the competition was just about how good you are, not whether you and someone else have had the same idea. I mean, this situation is ugly any way you look at it. Either Jill did plagiarize, which is wrong, or she didn't and Jane is being unduly suspicious. People often do come up with the same ideas. Surely part of being good is how you develop your ideas, not just that you've had them? I don't know either Jill or Jane well, but I liked them both; I'd talked to Jane a few times and found her very nice. I don't understand. I don't even understand quite why I'm upset. I guess I wanted to think I was going into a reasonably clean field, but anything with people in it can't be clean. You can't spend all your time in a library with books. There are people there to be dealt with, and they're not all nice all the time.

18 June 2010

Undergrad diary, 1

Ink started it, with excerpts from letters; then Flavia and the Fretful Porpentine got in on the act. It looks like a great meme to me.

In the Fretful spirit of considering how our women professors looked to our undergraduate selves, I will begin with this assessment of classes from the beginning of my last term before graduating. I have replaced names with initials plus X (for females) or Y (for males).
______________________________
Four classes: renaissance poetry, taught by Prof VY visiting from [Ivy 1]. Very friendly and fun, intrigued by and enthusiastic about [this area]. Fun to talk to, very receptive to student participation in class, even when our interpretations differ from his. Refreshing. Then 20th century lit from AX. In comparison with my other profs [this term], she suffers, particularly with a lecture class rather than a seminar. She was extremely nervous the first week or so; has calmed down now, but still is somewhat hesitant and disordered. Seems like she waits for you to tell her what she wants to hear; also just asks to hear general reactions, no specific questions. Third: women's literature and feminist criticism, from NX, visiting from [Ivy 2]. VERY good. She's really on top of lectures; it makes it difficult to talk in class, because by the time I've worked out what I want to say, she's said it; if I have questions, she usually answers them in lecture. And finally, JY's seminar in medieval narrative poetry. Wonderful. I have lots of grammar to study. I have tons of reading. I like the Renaissance class very much.
______________________________
I'd had a seminar with AX in the previous term, which I had greatly enjoyed. One incident had marred that term: a couple of students habitually engaged in side chat to each other, in a room of about 10 people sitting in a circle. I found it very distracting, particularly since the class was conducted in a foreign language and hearing whispered English interfered with my ability to keep my mind in the less familiar language. AX generally ignored the whisperers, but one day I got fed up and told them off myself. They were startled to be taken to task by a peer, and did shut up. But after class, a graduate student from the country whose literature we were studying caught up with me in the ladies' room and told me I should not have done that, that it was disrespectful. I failed to see how: the disrespect seemed my peers', to me, but this woman thought if the prof could put up with it, I should too.

So I had past experience with AX. My impression was that she was simply very shy about speaking in front of groups. She always got better as the term wore on; she was fine in office hours; but in the first week of class, sitting up front, I could see her hands shaking. She had tenure, so it wasn't to do with pre-tenure anxiety. I doubt it was a health condition, since the shakiness appeared at the beginning of term and then got better. But reading this casual assessment of her made me feel very self-conscious about my own classroom presentation, now. We are so visible.

AX was confident enough, though, to simply be herself, nerves and all, in front of her students. NX may also have been herself, but it was a very different self: simultaneously polished and abrasive, very organized, giving the impression that she would stand no nonsense and that if you had something to say it had better be an intelligent contribution. I kept getting B's in her class, and later in the term I went to see her to ask how I could improve my grade. I don't remember what she said (I didn't write about this), but I think it might have had something to do with class participation, because I remember weeping in frustration and humiliation as I confessed that I kept trying to participate and by the time I got my comments formulated, she would already have said them herself because her lectures were so complete. In the end, I got an A in the class and I wept again, because I feared she thought I was brown-nosing when I truly did want to improve, not to be indulged.

I was studying both these women as potential models, since I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to know what options I had for being a professor. AX was much easier to talk to. I really wanted to be like VY, who lived in a hotel in a funky neighborhood and once took a batch of us out to breakfast at his usual diner and then on a flea market expedition. But I could see that part of his ability to treat his students as he did came not just from being male, but from being a not-terribly-attractive man. His attractions all had to do with personality; he was not at all like Alison Lurie's ridiculously handsome Fred Turner, whose looks "interfered with his teaching." I was not sure how I was going to negotiate all the pitfalls of whose presence I was gradually becoming aware . . . but my commentary is already too long.

14 June 2010

Teaching grads, 4: distant past, recent past, future?

It’s a truism that we learn to teach from our teachers; but since I now teach a different subject from my undergraduate major, my own education didn’t help much when it came to teaching undergrads. I learned to teach at that level by trial and error, watching and asking colleagues, reading other people’s syllabi, going to conferences, and, of course, from books.

I relied much more on my graduate education to teach me how to teach graduate students (and I will reiterate here that I’m talking about teaching courses, and especially intro/MA level courses, not so much advanced seminars, and definitely not about advising dissertators, which is another whole ball of wax). When I first started teaching, either because Things Were Different In the Old Days, or by luck of the draw, this worked pretty well. Particularly in my first few years of teaching, it happened that a large number of my students were older women, often teachers themselves, who were highly motivated, organized, and professional in their approach to classwork. They took notes in class, did all the assigned reading and the recommended readings, and came prepared to talk. Their years in high school or community college classrooms meant, among other things, that it didn’t occur to them to be afraid to speak in front of a group; that they were accustomed to analyzing literature not only for themselves but also so as to make it comprehensible to others; and that they grasped the necessity of starting research projects fairly early in the semester. Whenever I had a class with a core of students like this, they set the bar for the others, who mostly stepped up to the plate. Oh, of course there were some screw-ups, and in my second year teaching I had a really woefully underprepared and hostile class that I still remember with a shudder (and no doubt the same goes for them), but by and large, I felt that I didn’t have to do a lot of teaching in my grad classes. I prepared for them as I would have prepared as a grad student, by doing all the reading and being ready to talk. We all knew what a term paper was; most of us understood what was meant by “a presentation.”

So much for ancient history. Over time, the graduate student population has changed. I get fewer and fewer of these older students (some of whom had three or four years of Latin in high school) who have a lot of life experience, including experience teaching, and more and more students in their twenties, who are coming straight from a BA or with no more than a couple years in the work force, generally spent in retail or in low-level office jobs they hated. They like to read, and think this means graduate school is a good idea.

Well, certainly you shouldn’t go to grad school in English if you don’t like to read . . . but “like” is a bit mild. If you’re obsessed with reading, with reading criticism and history and theory as well as primary texts, then graduate school may be a good idea.

At any rate, this means I have to do a lot more teaching: how to read in the way expected of graduate students, how to organize your reading, how to skim, how to write a two-page “position paper” or “response paper,” how to write a summary of a critical article or book, how to write an annotated bibliography, what goes into a good presentation on a critical article or book, how to do a close reading, what I mean by “term paper,” the difference between between term paper and conference paper, how to write an abstract. All this on top of teaching Middle English and the necessary literary and historical content and context.

You might think that a lot of this should have happened in undergraduate education. Well, fine, maybe it should have; but the situation on the ground is that either it didn’t, or it didn’t stick. And this is why I feel that I need to re-think my approach to teaching graduate students, at least the ones that I’m getting these days. Somehow I need to meet them where they are, while nonetheless making clear where the bar is, and what they have to do to clear it. If I don’t question my assumptions and expectations, my default position is still that students will know what I mean by “a 15-20 page term paper,” etc., and that I can get on with teaching them how to read Middle English, how to understand Chaucer’s poetry in its literary and historical context, and how to assess the range of critical responses to Chaucer’s poetry and prose. That’s what I want to do; that’s what I think I really ought to be doing. But I can’t do that job if too many people are unprepared to learn at that level.

For several years, I’ve tried making some assignments clearly, definitely relevant to my students’ current or future professional lives. For example, I assign the preparation of a lesson plan for a unit on Chaucer, at the level of their choice (high school, in a lower-division survey course, whatever). What will they need to convey? How much behind-the-scenes reading will they need to do to prepare? This works well for people with teaching experience, not so well for those without it. I have also explicitly taught the conference paper, from abstract to delivery. We have a mini-conference at the end of the semester (spread over two meetings), and students deliver 15-minute papers. I grade both the written work and the presentation. A lot of students have told me they appreciate this training. Here again, though, I think it’s better to learn how to do the conference paper after you have already learned to write the 15-20 page research paper.

So when Dr Virago writes about the importance of research papers for undergraduates (see also here), I have to applaud. But I still haven’t adopted that model for my own classes. And I worry that that means I’m part of the problem. I hope that my colleagues—who aren’t teaching in what is for many students essentially a foreign language—are assigning research papers. But what if they aren’t? Then I have to pick up that task in MA courses, apparently.

This is what I want to have happen in graduate courses: vigorous discussion, applying critical insights to literature, thinking about literature in historical context, paying attention to word choice and patterns in the text itself, students talking to each other, as much or more than to me. I want informal presentations that stay on topic and help generate discussion (5 minutes on why you found a critical article important/ useful; a close reading of a passage either assigned or chosen from the text). I want students to learn to recognize and develop good questions: here’s a topic that cannot easily be answered, has a lot of possible approaches, would be good as a paper topic. I hope they will apply work from other classes: how does something you read or did in another class help to make sense of something we’re doing here? And vice versa: what are you doing here that illuminates something else you’re studying?

But the question is how to get there from where we seem to be starting, these days.

09 June 2010

Nine and a half weeks

Till I'm back on contract. How can it be early June yet feel like the summer's nearly over?

There's still another post to come in the teaching-grads series (I thank all of you who commented so far!), and I think I'm going to give an excerpt from college letters or diaries, a la the Fretful Porpentine and Ink. So stay tuned till I get over my anxiety about time passing rapidly.

05 June 2010

Teaching grads, 3: Explanations

I was hoping for more comments on the last post, but if y'all aren't going to discuss, that's okay; I can lecture.

When I was a student, my cohort and I were good at reading subtexts. Many of my students are not. And yet, if I'm very direct about certain kinds of instruction, this can be read as bossy, bitchy, rude. I suppose a lot has to do with tone of voice and body language. And I think being direct is usually better than indirect direction. But sometimes I would prefer to put a page of translations and explanations in the syllabus, something like this:

If I say, “Of course you know,” or “Let me remind you,” I mean I expect you don’t know, but you should, and I am going to fill in some information so we can all pretend you knew this all along. Listen carefully, so you can keep up your end of the pretense.

If I say, “You might want to look at [Source],” this means “Go to the library and look up [Source].” Similarly, “You really should look at [Source]” indicates that I'm surprised you haven't done this already and you had better find [Source] ASAP.

Just because I have a sense of humor doesn’t mean I’m an easy grader. Just because we find the same things funny doesn’t mean I will cut you any slack on your research.

I don’t always know things you ask me in class. I will go and look them up, and answer your question next time. I will not put imprecise information on handouts or other formal documents (like things I’m trying to publish). Similarly, you should look up information you don’t know, and and avoid imprecision and generalizations in formal documents (like your written work for class).

Comments on "translations" you would use or need? Class?

03 June 2010

Teaching grads, 2: for students, before you start

There are certain things I expect graduate students to know, and abilities I expect them to have, before they take a course on a medieval topic. Often I identify these expectations by my shock at the absence of this knowledge in some students.

Basic historical knowledge: that the Middle Ages are "middle" because they come after the Classical period and before the Renaissance. That the Renaissance refers to more than a change in artistic styles (and that it encompasses that artistic change, as well). That the Protestant Reformation occurred in the sixteenth century, so Chaucer and his friends wrote well before it. That the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, so, as above. That England was (and remains) a monarchy, but not an absolute one: see Magna Carta. That there was a Norman Invasion, and that Chaucer (and Shakespeare) did not write in Old English. (I'm willing to explain that, at length, to undergraduates; but in grad school, you should know better.)

Basic ability to read and discuss poetry: the vocabulary of meter, stress, rhyme, enjambment, metaphor, metonymy, simile, imagery, and so on; the ability to follow complex syntax.

Bibliography and research: it really would be best to take our intro course on these topics before you get to my class. You should not rely solely on either on-line or hard copy sources. You should realize that there's something wrong with a bibliography all of whose items pre-date 1980 or post-date 1998 (unless of course your project is something like "The Manciple's Tale in criticism from 1920-1965"—and even then, you had better be prepared to explain your date limitations with reference to what happened before and after that period). Figure out how to order material from inter-library loan; don't ignore good sources just because they're not in LRU's library. Bibliographies should be complete: not just everything on very narrow topic, but read around that topic as well (i.e., if you’re looking at nightingales in Chaucer, you should consider also birds or even animals in Chaucer, and nightingales in other medieval literature).

Writing ability: You should be able to write coherent, grammatical English. You should know the difference between "lay" and "lie." (I have given up on this in conversational contexts, but at least in writing I want the distinction upheld.) Proofread, proofread, proofread. Turn off that damned auto-correct feature and actually pay attention to what you are writing. When you’re done, read what you have written. Aloud, if necessary. Does it make sense? Is it tolerably concise and free of repetition?

Intellectual curiosity: if you're even considering going to graduate school in the humanities, you should like to learn for the sake of learning. It's not as if a degree in English is a path to riches. I expect a certain joy in getting things right, in pursuing truth, in tracking down references, in being thorough. I have little patience with the slapdash, lick-and-a-promise approach. (See above about bibliography.)

I'm sure there are other expectations lurking in my mind. I may not be aware of them until the next time they're violated. So in an effort to ferret out some more of them, I ask you, gentle readers: what do you / would you expect of graduate students?

To be continued.

01 June 2010

Teaching grads, 1: defining the problems

Inspired partly by recent posts by Notorious and Bardiac, I plan a series of posts (not sure how many) about teaching graduate students. This is based, of course, on my own experience at a Large Regional University in the United States; if you are at any other kind of institution, your mileage may vary.

A bit more about the LRU program: we grant both MA and PhD. Some students plan to do a terminal MA; some plan to use the MA as a springboard into a PhD program at LRU or elsewhere; some are accepted straight into the PhD program from undergrad; others have done an MA elsewhere. Our MA program allows students a lot of flexibility. The PhD program requires courses in all the usual periods and areas. The rationale is that MA students are more likely to want the degree for personal enrichment or to move up the pay scale in high school teaching, whereas the PhD is likely to get hired (if at all) at a small college where s/he will have to be a generalist.

We also get non-degree students, usually people who are considering enrolling for a degree but are trying to decide if they really want to. Sometimes they are people who have one or more degrees in more or less distant fields from English who are trying to figure out if they can or want to switch fields. The department's admission standards do not apply to these students. They pay their money to the university and can take a certain number of courses before they have to enroll in a program.

In the past three years, I have taught three graduate courses. Most often I get one per semester, but I was on leave all of 2008-09, and the year before that the undergraduate program claimed greater needs. So it is possible that nostalgia for the classes d'antan is affecting me; or that since I was off-campus for a year, the student grapevine forgot to warn people about me. Either way, my more recent experiences with teaching MA level classes have caused me some dismay. As Warren Zevon might have put it, "the shit that used to work, well, it don't work now."

One of the biggest problems, for me, is the range of backgrounds and abilities in these classes, from advanced PhD students to students straight out of undergrad to students who haven't taken a class in several years. Some are medieval buffs; others are scared of the weird language. Some are bright but scattered: they are interested and curious but don't know how to do research. Others are perfectly competent researchers, but are taking the class to satisfy a requirement, and do not demonstrate any particular curiosity about medieval literature. Some are delighted to be back in the classroom. Others find that they are woefully underprepared. Some write well (or at least competently); others are not performing at the graduate level.

So I need to think anew about what I expect of my students: what I expect when they come into my classroom, what I expect them to learn while there, what I expect them to do on papers, in the library, and in the classroom. I also need to think about what I expect of myself: what do I owe my students? How much remedial work can or should I do, at the graduate level? To what extent does "upholding standards" mean teaching as if to specialists? To what extent does it mean providing advanced instruction to people whose main interests lie well outside the Middle Ages? It's not just a matter of being a gate-keeper and stopping those who are unprepared. There's also the problem of making the classroom experience worthwhile for more advanced students, when a significant number of their fellow-students are at a different level. These are similar questions to those I regularly consider in undergrad classes. But I see a wider range of abilities in the grad classes than in the undergrad classes, and I think the stakes are higher in the grad classes.

To be continued.