(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Email: lecturess[AT]gmail[DOT]comRecent Posts
Late Spring To-Do List
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Happy blogiversary to me
Today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, and also its--I don't want to say "conclusion," but let's say--"transition" into a new space and a slightly different form. It's probably true that it takes a while for any writer to get comfortable with a new genre, and I'm a little embarrassed to read back over my earliest posts--but I'm generally satisfied with the shape of this blog and the voice I've developed. I wish sometimes that I were a different kind of blogger (more on that in an upcoming post in my new space), but I'm just not, at least not right now.
I'm moving, then, not because I want to change anything significant about this blog, but because the title I've given myself and my blog will soon no longer be applicable. However, I'd also like to branch out a little bit in my new space, dealing more explicitly, at least occasionally, with subfield-specific issues. We'll see how that goes.
For now, what I really want to say is a big THANK YOU to all my readers, who number more than I ever would have expected and who have become, in many cases, friends. At my commencement activities last weekend I often caught myself telling my grad school colleagues about various "friends" who had had this or that experience in teaching or going up for tenure--and only belatedly relizing that I didn't know many of those people in real life, or in some cases even their names! And yet it's absolutely true that many of you ARE my friends, and I'm so pleased that I've had the opportunity to get to know all of you and to receive such frequently overwhelming support and encouragement as I've moved from thinking of myself as a grad student to assuming a new identity as a professor.
So consider this an open invitation to come on over and party with me at my new place, Ferule & Fescue. See you on the flip side.
Vital stats for La Lecturess
Days of existence: 366
Number of posts: 324
Number of site visits: just over 36,000
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Best news: it didn't rain!
Is anyone surprised that my advisor didn't show up? I know that I shouldn't be, but I still am, kinda. GWB's advisor, however, stood in for her in the photo below (those are his hand and ear):
A totally spurious contemplative moment:
Updated to add: Sorry to those who missed the photos...
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Limited blogging ahead: George Washington Boyfriend and I are off to spend the next few days in INRU-land for commencement, partying down with assorted members of my family and his family--it'll be the first time that our parents will have met, so. . . wish us luck with that. And pray for dry weather, while you're at it.
After that, I'll be hanging with my folks for a day or two here in the city, and then I'm off to New City to apartment hunt. If you're lucky, somewhere in the midst of it all I might post a photo of myself in my regalia, at least for a few hours.
Impending relocation: What with my rapidly-approaching 1-year bloggiversary and my graduation and new job and title and all the rest, I'll be moving to a new blog-home and taking on a different pseudonym by the end of the month. I expect to leave this blog up, however, and you may expect clear and easy directions to the housewarming party at my new place. BYOB.
Friday, May 19, 2006
Am I the only person who, when reading a journal article, writes in the margins things like, "so WHAT?" "this is totally bogus" and, "yeah, no shit"? Or is it just a sign of my immaturity and inability to respond in some more profound and scholarly way?*
*Immature or not, I do take unkind satisfaction from the fact that this particular article is such bullshit, given that the woman who wrote it is apparently working on a book project that overlaps with my own.
Sign of the times
I just finished reading a famous work of literary criticism. It's some 35 years old and still brilliant, but one thing really irritated me about it.
Every time the author refers to the works of another male scholar, he refers to said scholar as, simply, Lastname (e.g., Smith, rather than Mr. or Dr. or Professor Smith). On the relatively rare occasions on which he has occasion to refer to a female scholar, she is always Miss Lastname or (still more rarely) Mrs. Lastname.
I'm sure this was standard in the late 1960s, and it may even have been the publisher's house style rather than the author's own preference. But my God, it's annoying, and such a surprising reminder of how few women there once were in the academy--or in professional positions, period.
I'm not sure what the rationale behind this formula was: was it considered impolite to refer to a woman simply by her last name? Was the name, taken alone, seen as rightfully belonging to her husband or father (and thus the title situates her in relation to him)?
Whatever the reasoning, what a practical nightmare that must have been. Imagine: every time you wanted to quote a female scholar, you had to go find out whether or not she was married, so you could refer to her properly! And how demeaning for the woman to have that be the first and most pressing inquiry made about her: not what else she's written or where she teaches, but what her marital status is.
And here's the thing: this book was reissued by the publisher just a few years ago, in a new edition (properly speaking, the only thing new about it is the introduction--the rest of the volume looks as though it was set by simply photographing the original pages), and I'm sure it's still a good seller. Without an electronic file, going back and eliminating those titles would be expensive and time-consuming for the publisher, I know--but leaving them in dates the work in really unattractive ways.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Course design and the writing process
This fall I'll be teaching three courses, all of which I've already taught some version of. (The schedule was set up long before I even interviewed with DRU, with the intention that, whoever the department wound up hiring, they'd be able to slide into these classes with ease): Period Survey, Author Survey, and a composition seminar. The comp class will require the most revision, since I'm adapting the course that I taught at INRU two years ago, parts of which were designed to take advantage of the fact that 2004 was a presidential-election year. However, I'm switching some texts around in my other courses and generally trying to learn from my teaching experiences these past few semesters.
And it occurs to me that my approach to course design, or at any rate lesson planning, is weirdly similar to my approach to writing. As I've discussed, I'm a drafter. I write draft after draft after draft, usually into the double digits, of everything I write. I used to find this exasperating about myself--why can't I just call it done? Why can't I be faster at this?--but I've come to accept and often even to enjoy my own rhythms; in a way, it takes the pressure off to know that, okay, I'm going to have to be writing nearly every day for a month rather than screaming through a project in a week and a half--but on any given day I don't have to produce something brilliant, or even produce that much. I just have to plug away (at least until the end, when I do get truly crazy and obsessive).
I think I've now come to have a similar attitude toward teaching, born more of necessity than of nature. Teaching a 3/4 load this year was a shock, especially since each semester involved two new preps and I was on the market and I was still finishing my dissertation in the fall. So after the first few weeks of overpreparing, I learned the value of "prepared enough." I'd do the readings, type up any handouts or quizzes the night before, and then do all my lesson planning on the train into campus, scratching out big themes, lines of questioning, and important passages on a legal pad. To my surprise, this worked really well in the classroom, although I did always feel that I was perched on the edge of total disaster and might tumble into it at any moment.
In my period survey this spring, in the interests of time, I mostly just adapted or outright repeated what I'd done in the same class in the fall--sometimes using the exact same handwritten notes. I didn't love the straight repetition (one feels rather like a jukebox spitting out the same old tune), but I liked it when I had the time to think through a slightly different classroom strategy or to build on what I'd noticed from the previous semester. I also started occasionally scratching notes in the margins of my lesson plans as I was teaching, indicating things that worked well; things that needed more time; things to be scrapped.
Now that the term is over and I'm looking ahead to the fall, when I'll be teaching two of these same classes all over again, I'm also in the process of typing up my lesson plans based on these handwritten ones. My intention is to create a Word file for every text I teach, which I'll adapt and add to each year. Any given semester, I'll print out the document and then mark it up by hand: yes to this, this, and that part; skip that bit; try something else here.
We'll see how it plays out in practice, but I really like this as a way of thinking about teaching a given text or a given course: as a process with many stages and many drafts, and always with the potential for one more round of revisions.
And when I teach two brand-new classes in Spring 2007? Yeah, I'll put plenty of time into designing the syllabi and doing background reading--but the actual lesson plans will, I expect, be scratched out on legal pads the night before.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
This afternoon I finally received the three bound copies of my dissertation that I'd ordered from UMI.
This morning I called up Sallie Mae to consolidate all my student loans. Given that I owe well over $60,000, I'm projected to be in repayment for the next 25 years.
Talk about your vanity projects.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Interpretative Dance Theocrats
Check out this "crib sheet for Christianity" (more additions in the comments section, so scroll down).
Here's a taste:
The Protestant ReformationUnfortunately for the author, it's not just the non-religious who know fuck-all about Christianity--it's Christians themselves. Many of them my students.
(Link wantonly stolen from my brother's blog. Thanks, bro!)
Belated but appropriate Friday poetry blogging
Westron wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Après le déluge. . . we shop!
After a manic 48 hours of grading, I finally finished up around noon today and ran down to FedEx to send in the course grades for my last two classes (they're due by 10 a.m. tomorrow, and I was damned if I was going to make the trip to deliver them in person). Then I spent the next few hours wandering slowly back in the direction of home, ducking into nearly every enticing shop along the way.
Like Ragey, I believe in rewarding myself for tasks accomplished. Unlike Ragey, I don't tend to plan ahead, and so these treats are not necessarily in the budget even if they're relatively inconsequential. And it must be said that I tend to believe that I deserve such treats rather often.
Here's how I spent my money today:
What will I be doing instead? Well, I'm hoping that this past week--minus that whole grading interlude--will provide a template: in addition to the poker party and the housewarming party previously mentioned, I've also done some more afternoon drinking with Bert (a five-hour stretch at that same bar, which included several impromptu dance breaks on the bar itself); I've had a lovely dinner with an old college friend who lives in the metropolis that surrounds Big Urban; and then this weekend several of us are trekking out to the Château Fergusberg for one last bash before they sell the place and move north. Oh, and I also have a ton of cleaning to do.
Laissez les bons temps roulez!
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Objects in the mirror may be cooler than they appear
So it's the end of the term, and amidst the various dirty or hostile looks I've received upon returning papers, passing out exams, and the like (and I've received plenty), I've also received two touching and unexpected affirmations from students in my seminar on Author #1.
One of them--a highly participatory but sometimes wide-of-the-mark graduating senior who'd done abysmally on his first paper--sent me a long, thoughtful email in which he said the class had been one of the best he'd taken in his four years at Big Urban. He's a journalism major, and he wrote that he'd been very nervous about the nature of the material we were covering and had worried that he'd never live up to my expectations, but that in fact he'd learned more and been more challenged than in almost any other course he'd taken.
And as if that weren't awesome enough, it looks like he'll be working at a certain storied men's magazine after graduation. Yes, the one with the rabbit ears. So I can say that I taught someone there everything he knows about [dead white male author]!
The other affirmer was one of my two punk/metal band kids. These two always arrived together (and always 5-10 minutes late), and when one wasn't there, the other wasn't there. One of them talked in class while the other rarely said a word, but as a unit they were hard to read: they'd sit there in the back of the class, in their fingerless black gloves and ripped jackets, occasionally exchanging amused glances, and I always had a sneaking suspicion that they found both me and the class to be a complete joke.
But in fact one of them (the talker, who also happens to be an extremely talented comic writer) wound up emailing me about this and that, and in the course of doing so asked if it was true that I'd be teaching one of the courses on Author #2 in the fall: "I really should take that class, but I've already had to drop it twice due to serious lack of interest in the instructor. [Other metal kid] and I would totally take it if you're teaching it."
When I told him that I'd love to have them in my class, but that unfortunately I wouldn't be at Big Urban in the fall, he wrote back, "That sucks that you're leaving! You're an awesome teacher. [Other kid] and I loved this class. Hey, I even did the reading for it!"
Now, some of his enjoyment was surely based on the content of the course (if you know which one I'm talking about you can imagine that both the author and one character in particular might appeal to a rebellious late adolescent), but I was still touched and absurdly flattered by his correspondence.
I mean, hey: not only did they like my class, but they apparently thought that I was COOL.
Listen up, world.
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Disconnected, end-of-semester wrap-up
It's been a busy week and a half. I was in Quaint Smallish City for the six days between the end of classes and my first exam, grading and writing finals and trying to catch up on my magazines and professional journals. George Washington Boyfriend and I went over to Dr. Fun's place one night for a poker party with some of the other junior or otherwise cool faculty at Atypical College, where we drank bourbon, toasted Fun's achievement of tenure and his partner's new job with Important Book Review, and talked shit about everyone who wasn't there. We also got together with one of my favorite academic bloggers and said blogger's partner for dinner and a leisurely few cups of tea and conversation afterwards--all in all, a week of just the right mix of work and fun.
And then--and then it was a mad scramble to campus for my exams (the first two of which were scheduled for 8.30 a.m. and 4 p.m., on the same day--whose idea was that?), while trying to finish up a paper proposal for Big Deal conference. Friday I ran off to get a fabulous haircut, donned my long lanky pink trousers, and set off for a housewarming party at Lulu's. When I first arrived the bartender hadn't yet shown up (and yes, they're the kind of people who hire a bartender), so Bert took over that job temporarily, mixing the mojitos and foisting Tequila shots on everyone, but mostly on himself, when he wasn't somehow both insulting and endearing himself to the guests by making what might otherwise be considered offensive racial and ethnic remarks. (Bert can get away with it because he's Bert.)
And then it was 6-something a.m. on Saturday and I had to make myself look presentable for the last day of a conference some distance away about which I had all kinds of social anxiety; it didn't help that I was still half-drunk when I woke up and that I retained a nice little headache right in the center of my forehead until well into the afternoon. However, I put in the necessary face-time, reconnected with some people I genuinely like, and made some small but useful professional contacts. I didn't get introduced to the Vortex of Evil (Sfragett, you know who I mean), but I chatted up a different big-name critic who immediately asked me to review for his journal--starting with a book on Neglected Author that I really want to read but for which I've so far been unwilling to shell out $60--and was told by the editor of Big Journal in My Field how much they'd loved my recent article and how much they hoped I'd send any future work their way.
So, it was all a bit more of a love-fest than I expected, even if I was completely cold-shouldered by someone I considered a friend in grad school. Nothing has happened between us--she just doesn't, apparently, consider me important enough to waste five minutes of conversation on. Ah, academic politics.
And now it's the homestretch: my last exam is on Tuesday, followed by a quick pack-up of my office, and dinner in the city with an old college friend. Grading grading grading for the next two days--and everything should be done by Thursday.
After which, it'll be time to get serious.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
Classroom space, take two
In response to my previous post, a reader-friend emailed me these comments:
I thought you were going to go in a very different direction. I completely agree with you when you write: "What I'm interested in here is not whether my classroom space this semester provided an adequate learning environment, since it was more than adequate; rather, what I'm interested in is the effect that classroom space has on students' perception of their learning." But from my perspective, the issue is not how wonderful or how burnished [INRU] has become. Rather, my interest is in how the functional, if barely, classrooms affect your present students. Or the filthy, disgusting, airless, windowless classrooms affect mine. My point is that when you are in a classroom like the one you reproduce at [INRU], sure, you feel the luxury, but you also feel that you matter, and the material you are talking about matters (I had similar classrooms at [School 1] and [School 2]). But at present, my students are in classrooms that scream at them that they don't matter. Consider the effect of a classroom with a gaping hole in the wall, a hole that is never repaired, has on them, and on their sense of importance. I don't mind the patina of luxury at [INRU], because [INRU] still deeply values its faculty, and its students. It's the places like [my current school] that drive me up a wall, because they don't.I wrote back briefly, but he makes some good points that I'd like to explore further--and I'd be interested in engaging anyone else who might be interested as well.
My first thought is that, yes, classroom space does send a message to students about themselves and their worth and the worth of the educational enterprise; the rooms my reader describes sound appalling, and whatever message students might take away about themselves from such a room, they're probably not leaving with the impression that learning, in and of itself, has great social worth.
However, my rooms at Big Urban really don't meet that description (the hole in the wall, by the way, was repaired a month into the semester, although the patch itself--more than two feet square--remains entirely and glaringly visible). The worst rooms I've taught in aren't much worse than simply a neutral backdrop against which to stage whatever it is that's being taught, and I don't have a problem with that: it's a big public school, but it's also an R1 with a good faculty and a diverse and pretty smart student population--they're paying much less than students pay at INRU, is what I'm saying, but I don't think that the quality of the education they're getting is significantly less, although it's necessarily patchier.
I also wrote my previous post in part because, as a student at INRU, I always did feel that the rich facilities were somehow a tribute to the learning experience itself. Many's the time I'd sit in a graduate seminar in that renovated building, on an upper floor, with a view of trees and sky and faraway spires through the leaded glass windows--and then I'd look around the room full of handsome faux antique chairs bearing the university crest (chairs that retail for more than $300 each), lovely wood panelling, earnest students, and think, "Ah! The intellectual life! This is what it's like!"
And yes: in part the university spends money on its facilities because it genuinely values its teachers, its students, and the life of the mind. But I've gotten more cynical as I've gotten older, and as I've begun to compare the gloss of the new facilities and their insane expense with the old facilities (not to mention when I compare these expenditures with the way the university treats its workers--but that's a whole 'nother post), it's hard not to feel that there's an excessiveness there that's all about trading on the school's name and reputation and constructing a movie-set version of the college experience, the better to reel in well-heeled suburban students who might be scared off if the campus didn't match their Dead Poets' Society fantasies.
But laying all the variables aside, and if it were just a matter of the facilities--wouldn't I myself rather teach in a room like the one pictured in my first photo?
Of course. But that doesn't mean that I'm not a little disgusted with myself for it.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
A month or two ago, after a visit to Grad School City, I promised a post on classroom space and our attitudes toward and understanding of the educational experience itself.
Below is the first room in which I taught at INRU, and which is entirely typical of the classrooms for most seminar-size classes or discussion sections; typically the classes in such a room would number around 18, but the room could seat 25 in a pinch. Notice the big windows (which go up nearly to the ceiling), the rich woodworking, warm-neutral paint colors, and the simple but handsome (and probably very expensive) chairs and table:
Below is the classroom at Big Urban in which I taught my seminar on Author #1; the room is also identical to that in which I taught my two survey sections (it's the same room, just on a different floor):
The photo makes the space look nicer than it actually is--you can't see the big gaping hole in the wall beneath the whiteboard behind the instructor's desk, or how truly battered the tablet desks are; it's also hard to tell how small the room is. Once upon a time, it was a seminar room with a single big table in the middle, and now there are 30 desks crammed in there (the space is actually only slightly larger than the room pictured above).
Nevertheless, the differences between the two are apparent, and I'm quite sure that the latter room would not appear in a college viewbook (unless it were full of smiling, engaged students of all races). It's not at all a bad room--except for the hole in the wall--and indeed in many ways I preferred having my 30-person surveys in a fairly tight space rather than in the much wider and deeper rooms in better repair in which I taught the same class last semester: in those rooms I felt more removed from the class, and the silent students at the back of the class could sometimes drop off my radar screen in a way that simply wasn't possible in this tiny room, where the front row of desks was three feet from the front of my instructor's desk. This semester, we made jokes about the room; the students got to know their neighbors well (because they were always, literally, rubbing shoulders with them); and I could easily tell who was paying attention and who needed to be brought back into the discussion.
What I'm interested in here is not whether my classroom space this semester provided an adequate learning environment, since it was more than adequate; rather, what I'm interested in is the effect that classroom space has on students' perception of their learning. Wandering around the INRU campus the last time I was in town, I was struck all over again by how picture-postcard-y the place is. When I was an undergraduate, the place had a lovely luster, but was actually rather dingy around the edges: the classroom building that houses the room from that first photo is one of the oldest buildings on campus, and when I was in college it hadn't yet been renovated. Aside from the gawdawful fluorescent lights that had been installed at some point along the way, the building probably hadn't had a thing done to it in a century: the tables and chairs were hideously beat up and scarred with generations' worth of graffiti; the radiators hissed and clanked aggressively all winter long; the treads on the marble interior staircases were worn down, unevenly, like the stones at Canterbury, making for treacherous climbing. Sure, there were some new buildings, and some slow renovations going on, but the campus as a whole was shabby-genteel in a way that, after a while, made the place feel authentic in some way. No fancy new high-tech, wall-to-wall-carpeted buildings here! Save that for you Johnny-come-lately universities with parking lots.
This was, of course, a delusion (most of the buildings on campus were actually only some 60 or 70 years old--they just hadn't had anything done to them since), but there seemed to be virtue as well as snobbery in our affection for the pretty but crumbling structures around us.
I don't know what the living conditions are like now, and I'm sure that the dorm room are still too small, that they occasionally have mice, and that many of them are still saunas in the winter. However, nearly all the classroom buildings have been renovated along the lines of the room you see above; the campus has been sculpted and landscaped with new paving stones, pretty fences and benches, and fresh sod in the springtime to replace the barren patches in the grass. The dorms and libraries are also getting drop-dead-gorgeous makeovers: burnished woodwork, wrought iron gates; the whole nine. It's probably prettier than the campus ever was, even back in the patrician days that the makeover is clearly meant to evoke.
And that's the thing: if the campus was always a movie-set fantasy of what the Hallowed Halls of Academe look like, and of course it was, it was something one could ignore when the facilities actually looked as though they might well BE 500 years old. But now, as truly gorgeous as every corner of campus seems to be, there's such a stink of money and privilege about it that I find myself deeply conflicted even while, as a (somewhat) loyal alumna, I'm pleased to see the place doing well. (It's possible that that stink was always there, but that I was less sensitive to it when I was trying to be worthy of it.)
Walking around campus now, I'm aware of what a luxury good the place is marketing itself as. It's not just the World! Class! Education! that's being promised, but the appearance and the trappings of that education. The students and their parents are sophisticated enough consumers to know that what they want isn't just a four-year degree, but a liberal arts education. Anyone can go to college and then to business or law school, but if you want to move in the right circles, you want to be the kind of person who has season tickets to the opera and subscribes to The New Yorker and who can talk about The Waste Land and Salman Rushdie at company dinners or when wooing European clients.
And of course, I'm torn by this. I do think that the education that INRU provides is a great one, and that its students are usually genuinely excited by the intellectual life; sure, some of them are careerist, and will fuss about their B-pluses, but those same students are usually at the same time really engaged by the ideas that they encounter and really want the kind of education they're receiving; they want to be challenged to some degree, even if they also want their work to be validated with an A at the end of it all.
But I hate the fact that this education is being sold as an ultra-exclusive product that students get--along with those hushed stone passageways and vaulted ceilings--because they're in the know in one way or another: either they were born into a life of privilege (monetary or intellectual), or they've been tapped by their high school teachers and the admissions committee as worthy of entering that life of privilege because they have the right interests and talents.
And I hate the fact that this is what a liberal arts education has in many ways become, whether it's at a school like INRU or in the honors program at a big state school: a luxury. Everyone else gets pre-professional or glorified vocational training--since that is, in fact, what many students and their parents want. I'm not blaming students for the fact that most jobs now require a four-year college degree, and that their friends and family members tend to regard a degree in accounting as a more sensible project than a degree in English. And I'm not saying that I don't understand that the pressures on many students are acute. But when we talk about consumerism in higher education we're not just talking about students treating their instructors like service providers, demanding results (i.e., good grades) for their money, and attempting to dictate the terms of their education. We're also talking about the prestige economy that such a situation creates, in which some students not only get to show off more exclusive labels on their car bumpers or workout gear, but also get a different kind of education.
No one needs a well-appointed seminar room in a building with leaded glass windows and marble staircases to get a liberal arts education. Frankly, I prefer teaching students like those I've had a Big Urban, who don't come to my classes with a reflexive respect for the dead white males I teach. It's much more satisfying, and I think more valuable, to catch students by surprise, and to see them develop both analytical skills and aesthetic pleasures they didn't anticipate deriving from the stuff they "have" to study because they're English or Education majors--or because, if they're non-humanities majors, they took a flier on a class that met at the right time and fulfilled a distribution requirement.
But I worry that, increasingly, this kind of broad-ranging education, where the student is given the leisure to discover his or her own interests serendipitously, to debate ideas passionately, and draw connections across a disparate range of subjects, is coming to be seen as the province of those who can, in both sense of the word, "afford" it. And if they can afford this kind of education, well, it had better look the part while they're getting it.