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So, every other year (in theory – ha! see what I did there? – but I say in theory because while I have an agreed upon 2-year rotation of courses, it seems that this is up for debate periodically because of various vagaries of department politics, the fact that other people refuse to have a two-year consistent rotation, etc.) I teach a theory course that is required in one track of our three-track major.  I am teaching it for the third time this spring.

The first time I taught it (2009), it was a rough ride, in part because it was my first time teaching it and in part because my dad died in the middle of the semester.  The second time I taught it (2012), things went quite well, though I was still working out kinks, and a fair few students withdrew (so I ended up with like 14 students, as opposed to the 20-25 who really should be in the course), but those who remained were engaged.  This third time – in spite of the fact that I had to change the theory anthology because the one that I adored is now out of print in the U.S., so the syllabus has changed considerably, in ways that seem to actually be really good (because the anthology I found to replace it is really, really good) – I seem to have locked this course down.  I’ve got 21 committed students.

Now, some of those students are committed because they need the course to graduate, and they intend to graduate in May.  But that is the minority (maybe seven of them).  In general, I’ve got students who are there both because they need to be and because they choose to remain.  They’ve had one short paper (a 1-page assignment I do that kicks their asses but that teaches a whole bunch – they will do three more of these) and one test (2/3 of them did fine, 1/3 got a giant wake-up call).  I also feel like I should note that all but two of the students in the course have taken our “new” (first taught 3 years ago) intro to the major course, and I think this is making a difference in terms of attrition from the course, in that they are entering knowing that such a thing as critical theory exists and that they have a sense of what critical theory is and why it matters to our discipline, and I also think the fact that the course is now only offered once per year is making a difference in terms of attrition, in that this schedule change is motivating them to remain even if they don’t adore what is happening to them, and they can’t just withdraw and take it with somebody other than me – so this ain’t all me, the fact that the students are committed and engaged and whatever.  There are contextual factors.

BUT.  The level of motivation I am seeing from these students in what is, ultimately, a junior-level class, is stellar.  STELLAR.  Particularly since the first test.  I will note that on the morning of the first test, I had to show up early to allow a student with a medical appointment to start early.  I arrived an hour before the class meets, and the first thing I saw when I got off the elevator to the English department floor was a couple of my students studying together.  Yay, right?  But what really shocked me was when I got to the classroom 10 minutes later and there were like 4 students already in there (when did they arrive?!?!) studying silently.  And then, the student that needed to start early got there, and by the time we were 30 minutes out from “test time” about 2/3 of the class was in there, studying.  Silently.  Intently.

Now, I’ve got colleagues who claim that our students don’t care about studying, are too preoccupied with life stuff to study, whatever.  (These are the same colleagues who claim that their office hours are a ghost town, which I have never experienced myself.)  But for a test that was worth 10% of their grade – just 10% !- about 2/3 of my students were intense about reviewing the material.  (Not all of those did well: some of them even failed.  But my point here is that they took it seriously, even if only 30 minutes before the test.  They were not just phoning it in.)

Since they got that first paper and that first test back, I’ve had deep one-on-one conversations with nearly half of them as a result.  They are dying to master this material, and they are dying to do well.  In a junior-level course about shit that they don’t understand and don’t, really, care about.  You don’t choose the major in English because you care about theory – if you did, you’re major in Philosophy.

The student who did best on the first test has taken to coming to my office for private consultations about his questions before class, mainly because I encouraged him to do so, I think. (Note: his initial response to his first test grade – which he saw on Bb before I handed the tests back – was “Is my grade a typo?” – because it was so high – which might be my favorite grade challenge ever), but even the students who did poorly have come to me – they want to get this shit.  They care.

This week, the students in this course read Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and Zizek. Ultimately brief readings from all three, but dense.  And not only did they do the reading (which was evident from their questions and their freaked-outed-ness, but also from their furious note-taking as I guided them through the readings), but also they really, really care about getting it.

My favorite part of all of this is that I had two of my students, two of my best students (one a returning student, one a traditional student), say to me today that this is the first course in the major in which they really feel like they are uncomfortable, like they are really taking intellectual risks.  Like they are doing work that isn’t just about just getting the grade.

Here’s the thing: it’s easy when you’re “good” at something never to take a risk.  You figure out what a given professor wants, and then you give that to them.  You get an A.  Done.  If you are “good” at something, and you are a “good” student, you can easily stay in your comfort zone and still be impressive.  This theory class that I’m teaching is shaking them up, but in a really exciting way, both for them (most important) and for me (less important, but awesome).  And also: I will take credit for the fact that I make my course a safe space for them to take those risks, that they know that I care more about the risk than I care about them agreeing with me.  That is all me, and I am proud of that.

But you know what else is my favorite?  That the students who are NOT the best are still really digging into the material and making sense of it for themselves!  And learning to ask questions that they never would have asked before about the literature that they love!  I don’t actually care if those are “original” questions in the sense of actual originality – they are original to them!  They are working it out!  And they are still taking risks!  Risks for them!

Ultimately, they all are taking important and challenging and meaningful and amazing risks!  And their heads are buried in their notebooks and their books when we have class so that they can write things down and figure out what the fuck is going on!  They aren’t texting or daydreaming or sleeping or worrying about shit other than critical theory!  And not because I made some technology policy or because I’m nagging them or because there is a participation grade.  Nope.  They are engaged because it feels to them like it’s worth engaging.  I’m not quizzing them on the reading, and I’m not underestimating their ability to get it on their own and just lecturing 24/7.  No: I am trusting them to learn.  And I see them learning.

And that feels really fucking amazing.

 

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  • It’s week 3, and I remain in love with this schedule.  Why? Because All of a sudden I am never exhausted!  And I go to bed at the same time every night!  And I am energetic in every class that I teach!  And, motherfucker, people shouldn’t be ALLOWED to teach courses back to back to back the way I’ve been doing!  Because teachers SHOULD have energy for all the courses that they teach!  They SHOULD be excited about every last one of them!
  • Now, it is true that I had planned to get back to my scholarship stuff this week, and I haven’t quite accomplished that.  But I *did* 1) do my taxes, 2) get my 6-month dental appointment out of the way, 3) take care of Major Service Obligation, 4) figure out what the fuck to do about my theory class that has already been cancelled twice because of weather, which as much as I love a class cancellation, this is the one class I wish would never be cancelled, particularly at the beginning of the semester, 5) do an MLA abstract, which was a revision but a substantial one, for a panel that’s being resubmitted this year, so kinda that’s scholarship?

But so I’m loving my schedule and I’m feeling very good about this semester, in spite of starting at a deficit because of the MLA and then because of the Miami trip.  And I know more of my students’ names now than I’ve known at this point in the semester for like the past five years, and I am excited about my students in a way that I’ve not been excited about them in ages.  To be fair, it might be true that I have an exceptional bunch of students this semester.  But I also think I am seeing their exceptionalness precisely because I’m not motherfucking exhausted because of my schedule.

What’s also kind of nice about the 5-day schedule is that I am no longer the person who can’t meet on a certain day.  Indeed, I can meet on every day, within time constraints.  And that is a much easier role to inhabit (it’s hard protecting full days, as opposed to protecting time within days) than the role of being the dick who refuses to come in on a particular day.

So, I have energy, and I don’t have to spend energy on “protecting” myself so much.  This is all good.

I’m pissy about a variety of things right now, but the other benefit of consistent sleep time and feeling so energized by teaching is that as pissy as I am, I’m not letting the pissiness rule my life.

So that’s the news for the moment.  I think I’m going to go watch some television, because, you know, I’m all caught up with everything, AND I CAN.

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So I know I’ve been falling down on the blogging.  Frankly, things have just been so nutso in real life since the end of last semester that I haven’t had the time or the energy or the writing mojo to post.  Indeed, in meeting up with some bloggy peeps at the MLA Convention, I even said that I wondered whether I was even feeling like blogging at all anymore.  But never fear!  I’m not hanging up my blogging hat just yet.  I do think, however, I might be transitioning into a new phase of some sort.  No, I’m not sure what that will mean, but I do think that maybe I’ve outgrown what the blog has been since my sabbatical in 2010.  (It might be true that every 4 or 5 years I feel like I need to adjust the blog.  My 10-year blogiversary is coming up in July, and since blog years are like dog years, it maybe makes sense that I can’t just keep going without changing it up periodically.)

But so it’s 2014!  And I couldn’t be more pleased!  I’m ready for the fresh start that the new year brings.  I’ve made my resolutions – recommit to fitness goals, have fun with dating, finish my book manuscript, accumulate new experiences and have adventures, and knit beautiful things for the people I love – and I’m feeling very positive.

And in spite of a somewhat chaotic start to January what with a broken pipe which left me without water and which got in the way of me writing my MLA paper before I actually went to the conference, things are going very well.

First of all, I had a great MLA.  It was awesome to hang with BES, who attended the MLA for the first time, and to see it freshly through her eyes.  It was awesome to meet up for coffee with another former student who is now in her first year of an MA program in the Chicago area. It was awesome because I saw some of my favorite people from my grad school cohort, and everybody is doing so well! One friend is a publishing machine and he and his partner have ended up with tenured jobs at the same excellent public R1 (in different departments).  Another friend is up for tenure at an amazing public R1, and he’s got his second book contract.  Another friend, while still seeking the elusive tenure-track gig, has managed to carve out contingent positions that aren’t terribly exploitative and he’s got a toddler and a new baby and personally he seems to be happy in his life. I saw old friends from various conferences over the ages, and I realized that I’m at the point where I actually have “old friends” (like, people I’ve known for 10+years) who are also colleagues – and we are all active and engaged in the profession in various ways, and that is grand.  I didn’t get more than 5 hours of sleep any night, and I was losing my voice by Friday because of all of the talking, and it was superb and also made me realize that perhaps I’m going to need to stop hitting the MLA quite so hard, because DAMN.  And my paper went well and was well attended in spite of the fact that it was late in the conference and many, many people had already headed off to the airport.  It was a professionally and personally energizing weekend, in spite of the delay on my flight home and in spite of the fact that I had to teach the very next morning.  (Though I will note: with these motherfucking dates, I will in the future plan to have somebody fill in for me and pass out my syllabi for me on the first day of classes if I go to the MLA – especially if the location is not in the Eastern time zone and I have to or want to stay until the bitter end.  It is totally unreasonable to try to turn around from the convention and teach immediately.  As much as the old dates sucked, they didn’t conflict with my ability to teach effectively.  These new dates actually get in the way of me doing my job well.)

But even with my frustration over the MLA happening the 4 days before my semester starts, I’m really excited for the Spring semester, in which I’m teaching courses about which I’m really excited and in which I have students who seem enthusiastic (at this early juncture – for I don’t know most of them, though the ones I do know are universally delightful and hard-working and smart, especially in the critical theory course, which is crucial since I need some delightful, hard-working, and smart students to set the tone in there).

And what makes this even better is this: I am so fucking happy with my schedule for this semester!  I know, it’s only two days in.  Let’s see how I feel around week 4 of the semester.  But seriously: I really think that this is a GREAT SCHEDULE.

You might be shocked to hear that my “great schedule” has me on campus 5 days a week.  So let me tell you the story of how I ended up with this schedule, and how I ended up overjoyed at finally getting the Scheduling Gods to agree to it.

So when I started with my tenure-track job, lo, those many years ago, my schedule tended to be 5 days a week.  I would teach two classes (usually comp) on M/W/F and then two classes (usually lit) on T/R.  This meant that I was done teaching on M/W/F by 1, and done on T/R by 3 (if not earlier).  Now, because I was new-ish, I didn’t have the service burden that emerged later, but it’s also true that it was with this schedule that I revised my dissertation into a book and managed to get my book contract and to revise my book manuscript for publication, all the while developing the 672 courses that I’ve taught in my time here, and all while teaching a 4/4 load.  Going to teach every day actually made me MORE productive, not less, in terms of research.

Things with my schedule changed (by my own request) right around the time that I was going up for tenure, for a couple of reasons that seemed great at the time.  The first issue that as my service load ramped up, I felt like the 5-day schedule would keep me on campus in ways that would obstruct any research agenda I might have, and which would make my workload “unfair” in comparison with the workloads of other people in my department.  (Regarding the “unfair” thing: one of my mom’s favorite aphorisms is “don’t measure with a yardstick,” by which she means, don’t make decisions for yourself or evaluate yourself according to what other people do.  This is really good advice, but it can be hard advice to take in a context in which it seems like you’re getting “the short end of the stick” and doing more work than other people.  It seemed to me at the time that changing my schedule would put me on more equal footing with colleagues who weren’t obligated to be on campus as much as I was, but I now realize that changing to a 2 or 3 day a week schedule didn’t actually make my workload “equal” to theirs.)  The second thing that made me change my schedule is that when we got our grad program, teaching in it required night teaching.  Since I teach every other year in the grad program, it seemed “sensible” to move to a schedule that left me two free days in a week, during which I could work on scholarship.

EXCEPT.  What I hadn’t really thought through was the exhaustion that would result from teaching three courses in one day on both Tuesday and Thursday.  Nor did I realize that after teaching a night course, from which I wouldn’t get home until 9:30 or 10 at night, I would be so keyed up that I wouldn’t be able to relax and get to bed at a reasonable time.  Nor did I account for the fact that I’d get home at 9:30 or 10 at night and then need to be back on campus no later than 9 AM, and what that would be like.  And finally, I didn’t account for the fact that since my Tuesdays and Thursdays were so jam packed with classroom time that I would always need to be on campus 4-5 days a week anyway, in order for there to be time for meetings, both for committee-work and to meet with students, and that teaching work (prep and grading) would necessarily bleed over into my non-teaching days.

So what I discovered was that on my non-teaching days either I was too tired to do active research, or I was busy with meetings so couldn’t keep a consistent schedule for research.  And further, I realized that I was actually on campus for more total time than I was on campus when I was there every single day, thus nullifying my whole “I’m going to make my workload equal to the workload of shirkers and slackers” theory.

So for some time now, I’ve been longing for the “good old days” in which I had a 5-day schedule.  And now, I have finally returned to it!

Again, I know it’s only been two days, two days in which I’ve basically distributed syllabi.  And I may retract all of this in just a few weeks’ time.  But I already notice positive differences:

1) In spite of starting the semester with a work deficit because of the MLA Convention, I am, pretty much, on track after two days of work – and by “two days” I mean about 5 hours of work outside of class time over that two days, but 5 hours in which I was energized and not totally exhausted.  And I did productive work both on my courses and on my Major Service Responsibility.  AND I’ve had time to chat with colleagues, too, and to be pleasant and responsive, which I feel like hasn’t happened in this way since before tenure, frankly.

2) Also, in spite of starting the semester with a TOTAL sleep deficit, and also possibly still hung over (because DUDE, the MLA over-indulgence), I felt GOOD at the end of teaching today.  Hell, I feel good now.  Getting a full eight hours of relaxed and solid sleep makes so much fucking difference I can’t even describe it.  Both in terms of the energy that I bring to the classroom and in terms of my own feeling of well-being.

3) I’m finding it easier to remember new student names.  I’d thought my problems with that over the past 5 or so years were about just having been teaching for so long.  But now I’m thinking it was maybe that I was seeing too many different students in one day over the past five years.

4) I didn’t wake up, either yesterday or today, with the thought, “I wish I didn’t have to teach.”  Seriously, I’ve woken up with that thought almost every single day – even at this early juncture in a semester – since I moved away from the 5-day schedule.

Look, I’m not saying that this schedule is for everybody.  I know it isn’t.  But with a 4/4 load, with 4 different preps in a semester, maybe it’s better to spread the teaching time out.  Also, maybe this works for me precisely because I’m extroverted, and this means that I actually am less productive if I don’t get out in the world with people in bursts each day.  (My theory on why this might be better for me is that interacting with SO MANY PEOPLE in two days and then seeing very few or no people the other five days throws me out of whack, making the people exhausting even for extroverted me.  Whereas, interacting with 50 people every single day, consistently, actually keeps my energy up.  I dunno.)  But I will say this: I’m thinking I may stick with the 5-day schedule even when I next teach in the grad program, just making sure that on the following day I don’t teach until afternoon.  We’ll see.

Here’s the thing: I think that I went to teaching fewer days a week in part because that is a model that “works” for research at a research university, and it fit with advice I’d gotten from mentors in grad school.  But while teaching a lighter teaching load only two or three days a week might make some sense, teaching a 4/4 load on only two or three days a week, at least for me, does not.

What I need is consistency and to feel like I can structure my available time in ways that really work for all of the parts of my job.  It’s easy to let teaching overtake everything, and then, once teaching has filled up as much time as possible, to let service take whatever tiny bit is left.  But research matters to me, and spreading my teaching schedule out makes me feel like I am allowed to set aside time for research, too, at least right now.

So for the time being, I’m feeling very positive about this change.  And I’m excited to see whether I can produce some concrete results with it.

(And it doesn’t hurt that everybody thinks I am some sort of saint for having this schedule.  Especially when I’m less exhausted than I was when people were busy envying my old shitty schedule.  It’s nice to be congratulated for doing what ultimately makes me a much happier person, as opposed to being treated like crap for doing what makes me feel like crap.)

Oh, and you likely won’t hear from me again until next week because I am going away for the weekend to celebrate my high school friend Naomi’s 40th birthday in a locale with beaches and sun (although the weather looks like it will be kinda lame for beach-related activities).

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  • The longer I teach, the more I realize that actual “grading” at the end of the semester means little.  I mean, I go through the motions, but I’ve started doing this thing where I predict what my students will earn based on their work up until about midterm/75% of the way through the semester, and typically what they earn is about what I predict (within a plus or a minus), regardless of end-of-semester assignments.  Now, part of this is because I don’t believe in weighting Finals so heavily that they can totally change a grade.  Part of why I don’t believe in this is pedagogically sound: it’s because, in the classes where this was possible, I used that so heavily to my advantage as an undergraduate, so I slacked for like 10 weeks and then I pulled out all the stops at the end, and I actually didn’t retain or learn very much.  But I won’t lie: part of why I do that now is laziness: the grading at the bitter end will be less brutal for me as a professor.
  • It’s been interesting (and gratifying) for me to see the way that certain students who started out weak at the beginning of the semester (in more than one course) and who took advantage of my offer to meet with them really were able to improve BY VAST AMOUNTS by the end.  They have improved so much, and I really see that as the result of one-on-one instruction.  Worth noting: this is why I get annoyed by colleagues who don’t hold office hours (even though we are “required” to do so) or who make their office hours so rigid that it prohibits students from taking advantage of them.  And when people say, “But students don’t come to office hours,” I will admit that my response is, “Um, mine do.  Sometimes I hold like 6 office hours a week because there is so much demand.”  Maybe it’s not that “students,” generally, won’t come, but that you suck.
  • This is also why I hate the process of student evals, though, because yeah, you might have gotten Ds on a couple of papers, but that doesn’t mean you will get a D in the class. WHY CAN’T STUDENTS UNDERSTAND MATH?  I believe in giving you the D that you deserve, but I also weight earlier grades less than later grades, so you should know that if you LEARN over the course of the semester that you will be fine.  But students (or at least my students) don’t get that, and so I get semi-crappy evaluation numbers, just because THEY CAN’T DO MATH.  They are all like, “she thinks this is a GRADUATE COURSE,” when what I’m actually thinking is, “IMPROVE!”  And almost universally, they do.  And their grades are FINE, in the final estimation.  (When I say “fine,” I mean that a large majority of my students end up in the A-C+ range. And not because of grade inflation.)
  • On Students Not Understanding Math, why do students who haven’t submitted more than 60 percent of the assignments in a course think that taking the final will allow them to pass?  Why do they show up after they have disappeared for 8 weeks?  Just why?
  • I also have had a couple of students this semester who took a course with me at the sophomore level and then another at the junior level, and it’s been gratifying to see (in terms of looking at how my grading shakes out) that those students earned higher grades in the lower level course than in the higher level.  Which, I think, is as it should be.  (Note: I didn’t do this intentionally: it was how it all shook out in terms of assessments and rubrics.)  Expectations should be higher in upper-level courses than in lower-level courses.  I’m glad that mine align with that ideal.
  • I have weird dry skin issues because of the weather this year.  It sucks.  (I typically have really good skin, so perhaps I’m being a baby.  But I am used to having perfect skin, and this is unacceptable.)
  • A thing that has been annoying me lately in my department is that a certain minority of my colleagues have been bitching at Every. Single. Department Meeting. about how their courses don’t make enrollment and about how it’s the fault of the curriculum, and they do so under the auspices of agenda items that are not about this issue, and they never bring forth a proposal (to put on the AGENDA for a vote) to solve the “problem” that they see.  (My annoyance stems from the fact that a) I have to listen to them bitch unproductively, and b) they end up getting “rewarded” with 2 preps rather than 3 preps or the 4 that I teach because their courses get cancelled.) Right, now, however, I am less annoyed because in spite of the fact that I am teaching an upper-level course next semester that is for all intents and purposes a “new” course (it’s been on the books since Vietnam – literally – but it hasn’t been taught for the 10 years I’ve been here) is totally fine in terms of enrollment, whereas some courses that should have NO PROBLEM (think: SHAKESPEARE) have been cancelled.  Here’s the thing: maybe the problem isn’t the curriculum, or the students, or the schedule.  MAYBE THE PROBLEM IS YOU.  The problem doesn’t appear to be ME, even though I am ostensibly among the toughest (if not the toughest) professor in the department.  (These colleagues often argue that the problem is because their courses are the most rigorous… except that’s totally not what’s going on.)
  • The dating.  Where do I begin?  There are two primary guys right now: Geographically Convenient Guy (who literally lives like an 8-minute leisurely walk from my house) and Tortured Artist (whom I will go out with this weekend).  I like GCG a lot. (We met Tuesday.) Partly because of the convenience, I won’t lie, but even aside from that, he has lots of good qualities.  I’m less enthralled with TA, just because he seems so EARNEST (though perhaps I will find that he is a delight upon meeting? And I do like his name better than I like the name of GCG, which I realize is weird and shallow, but a good name goes a long way).  At the end of the day, though, I’m enjoying the dating fun, and it is taking the edge off the end of the semester nicely.  Worth noting: I found both of these dudes in the sad sea of what I think is the cesspool of internet dating – Plenty of Fish.  Also worth noting: they are both better (on paper, and in life) than any guy I’ve ever found on sites that require one to pay money… it just took me sifting through the dregs of society to find them.  (Seriously: the DREGS.)  So we shall see.

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Honestly, truthfully, totally, the part of my job that I find most gratifying is mentoring students who are in the first generation in their families to go to college.  Yes, I love my research, and yes, I love teaching innovative courses.  But the most important and gratifying work that I do involves helping students who have no ability to navigate academic bureaucracy and academic discourse.

This matters so much to me because I had little to no help with this as a first generation college student myself.  And it also matters to me because it produces such clear and measurable results.  The students whom I’ve helped with this stuff are clearly so much better off than they would have been had I not done anything, regardless of what careers they end up pursuing or the lives that they end up leading.  I actually like advising students, writing letters of reference, and vetting students’ application materials.  It is good work, and it feels good to do it.

So The Dude’s best friend since childhood has twin daughters who are in their senior year of high school.  Note: I love The Dude’s best friend, and he is, ultimately, a good person in his heart (though kind of shitty in the execution).  But WOW is he a shitty dad.  (Which, yes, makes me love him less, and also makes me sort of angry at him.)  So one of the daughters is trying to apply to colleges and her shitty father wouldn’t take her to visit one of the colleges, but because The Dude really is generous and loving and awesome, since he had taken the week off with vacation days from work, he was like, “of course I’ll take you to visit, niece-like person.”  And then after he asked me to look over her application essay – well, he told me he was sending it to me and then I gave him shit about not asking me, but whatever.  Of course I was going to help her.

1) From her essay, she is so smart and so amazing and her life has been Such. Shit.

2) I love The Dude for taking her to a campus visit, which, frankly, is like my worst nightmare of things to do.  I mean, campus visits suck.  Especially when the weather is hell and there is a campus tour component.

3) I love The Dude for enlisting me to help her.  The fact of the matter is that his BFF could have asked me to help, and it didn’t even occur to him. Or, at the VERY least, he could have asked The Dude to ask me.  But he DIDN’T EVEN CARE, even though his daughter is so motherfucking amazing and has no support.  Why isn’t he more proud?  Why doesn’t he take more responsibility?  Why is The Dude a better fill-in dad than the BFF is an ACTUAL dad?

4) I don’t even know this girl, but my god do I want her to succeed!

5) The Dude might suck for me, but WOW do I love him as a person and a friend.  He is one of the most good-hearted people I’ve ever met.

6) I’m sort of fraternizing with a young whippersnapper from the internet.  Because as much as I love The Dude, he can’t hang, and a lady in her late 30s must sow her oats while she has oats to sow.  But god, if he would just get his shit together…. Which he probably never will.  (We’re still trying, I am just entirely cynical about everything right now.)

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Let me preface this post with the fact that I am thoroughly enjoying teaching my MA students this semester, and our (theory) seminar is going exceptionally well.  They are bright and engaged, and sure, I keep having to reprimand one of them over and over again (let’s note: it’s week 7 and I’ve been doing this since week 2) for dismissing readings out of hand because zie doesn’t understand them or disagrees with them, but I think that the student actually appreciates getting challenged.  Or if not, I’m not going to tolerate anti-intellectual bullshit responses in a graduate seminar.  (Note: Not getting it isn’t the problem, because you can not get it and come in with questions, and that’s cool.  And disagreeing is also cool, if you point to what you disagree with and explain why or pose questions that indicate your disagreement.  What’s NOT cool is saying that the material – written by a renowned theorist – is garbage just because you don’t get it or you don’t agree.  Because you know, that is a garbage response.  And when I say you are being anti-intellectual in your engagement, and your counterargument is that I shouldn’t have had to pick apart a passage in class just to show how to read it… um, I’m modeling for you the kind of deep reading you yourself need to do.  Yes, I’m “an expert” and you aren’t.  But you don’t become an expert by dismissing stuff that hurts your feelings, says the lady prof who finds Derrida almost entirely confusing, except for in rare moments of nirvana-like understanding that immediately slip away from me.)

But the thing that I want to talk about is teaching at the graduate level with a 4/4 teaching load that primarily includes teaching undergrads including courses ranging from composition for first semester freshmen, gen ed courses, core courses in the major, and upper-level undergrad courses, AS WELL AS teaching graduate students that are typically pursuing the MA for reasons that do not involve a career in academia.

Before I get into that, let me note, I don’t actually object to us having an MA program.  I would thoroughly object to us ever having a PhD program.  Here’s the thing: I do think that grad school shouldn’t become a default option for all students, and I advise my undergrads that they shouldn’t just assume they have to do a graduate degree, and I encourage them to take time off between the BA and any grad option they might think that they will pursue.  And I strenuously argue that my strongest undergrads, who really want grad school, should NOT under any circumstances have our MA program on their list of places to apply, because frankly, they need to do better for themselves if they want to excel in a career with that graduate degree.  But for high school teachers who need the MA to get a rank change and to continue in their positions, or for people doing the degree for enrichment, or for people who are place-bound and need an MA to get a promotion at work… we offer a flexible MA that will help them get where they are trying to go.  Not all grad programs need to serve a population that wants to become professors.  (Some of our grad students have gone on to respectable PhD programs, primarily in rhet comp or creative PhDs, but in general for students interested in lit our program is a dead end in terms of anything beyond adjuncting, and yes, I make that very clear to my MA students.)

But with all of THAT being said, let me talk about the thing that frustrates me about teaching grad students in the sort of institution (regional comprehensive) at which I work.

I truly and fundamentally believe that it is irresponsible for people who are not themselves actively engaged in producing research in their fields to educate students at the graduate level.  Yes, I also prefer that people who teach advanced undergrads be actively engaged in producing research in their fields, but I’m more flexible with my ideas about people teaching undergrads because, ultimately, just by virtue of having completed a PhD, one is capable of giving students a foundation for future work, however stale one’s own original scholarship has become.  A PhD teaches you, or should teach you, enough that you can prepare adequately, by keeping up with other people’s original research, to teach an undergraduate course in your field of specialization, and while it might be preferable for one to maintain a consistent research agenda of one’s own, I do think it’s possible to do an adequate – and in some cases even a superior – job with undergrads even if one isn’t publishing new stuff of one’s own.

But teaching grad students is – and should be! – another kettle of fish.  Because what you are teaching them to do is to do original research of their own, and if you don’t do it yourself, you don’t have a clear state of what is happening in academic publishing, nor do you have a clear sense of what actually is original within your field.  How can one possibly pretend to give grad students what they are paying for – and yes, most of our grad students paying customers who don’t get assistantships or any support other than student loans – if you aren’t actually a consistent researcher in your field yourself?  For those rare students who want to go on beyond the MA, how can you possibly write an effective letter of recommendation that will get the student into a decent program?

But since the history of my institution – which only came into being as a university in the 1970s and which until a few years ago was playing the role of both community college and 4-year institution – is one that was all about undergraduate education, and because grad programs came into being as a “cash cow” sort of a scheme, there is little to no support for the work that goes into doing the faculty work that really should be a prerequisite of teaching graduate students.

Now, some programs (ones that we might label “applied”) fare better across campus than others, mainly because they worked some deals related to teaching load.  (So they have 3/3 loads and the option to apply for course releases beyond that, whereas within my college we are on a 4/4 and we have basically no option to apply for course releases unless we’re working in certain administrative positions or if we are getting “paid back” for directing grad students, after the fact – which I would argue encourages people to do a shitty job of advising just so they can accrue enough “credits” to be eligible for course releases.  So there are no options for course releases related to curricular development, and none that are related to research – without grant support, and even with grant support it’s not guaranteed in the humanities.)

Basically, if you’re teaching grad students and you’re in my position, you have two options: either you phone it in with your grad courses, thus doing a disservice to those students, or you phone it in with your undergrads, giving yourself the time and space to do what you should ethically do as a teacher of grad students, which is to keep active as a researcher in your field.  Oh, I guess there is a third option, which is to eliminate any self-care and any personal life that you might hope to have.  Basically, you can “reassign” your own time by shortchanging students or by shortchanging yourself.  There is still a “cost,” but it surely ain’t to the institution’s bottom line.

I suppose one might argue that I’ve split the difference between the three: my grad students are in some ways getting a phoned-in course, in that I am not teaching the most cutting-edge syllabus I could be teaching, because it’s necessary for me to repeat what I teach in that course in order not to have the additional prep.  And yet, it’s true that I have a reputation of being more rigorous than many other teachers in my program, in terms of the way that I respond to writing and in terms of the amount of work I assign and guide them through.  And then I phone it in with my undergrads in that I’ve basically had to stop developing undergrad curriculum, and I teach the same texts over and over, in order to make room in my life for the grad class.  And then finally I phone it in with my personal life in that I can’t actually focus on it, and the only personal life I have depends on the people in it accepting that I’m kind of an asshole.  All of this leads to me doing lots of things adequately and to doing nothing really exceptionally well.  Which then leads to shitty morale, and weight gain, and me writing internal grant applications that are filled with bitchy venom (because that really encourages people to give you money).

Sure, I suppose I could “refuse” to teach in the grad program (as some of my colleagues have done) though that would not help our program, and though that wouldn’t solve any of these problems.  (Let’s note: these are not the reasons my colleagues have refused to teach in the grad program.  There reasons have tended to be about refusing to teach night courses.)  I’ve tried to refuse teaching some of my service courses and I’ve been told NO.  I could agree not to teach upper-level courses in my specialization to undergrads, but, fuck you, you will not take away the thing that I am best at and that I enjoy the most and that really serves the greatest number of our students the best.  Basically, right now, I have no power to change my situation.  The most I’ve been able to achieve is to get myself a consistent two-year rotation of courses that includes ELEVEN different courses over that two years.  And my lack of power has to do with lack of institutional support.

I’ve been investing a lot of extra effort in applying for available money, both from external agencies and from within, in order to support not teaching in the summer and in order to support doing the kind of work that I should be doing as a scholar who teaches at the graduate level, and who teaches undergraduates who aim to be scholars themselves.  And I’ve cut way back on service, because service might make me a “good girl” in the institution, but that shit won’t get me fully promoted and ultimately, I’ve discovered that being a “good girl” with service just gets more service loaded onto me.  And I’ve cut back on the self-shaming about all of what I should be doing better because, honestly, if I had the institutional support I needed, I would be doing a much better job, so if I’m not doing “good better best, never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better is best” that is because my institution doesn’t actually give a shit if I’m doing the best that I can do, and it’s not about me doing a bad job.

But, at least from my perspective, it’s important to acknowledge that shitty grad programs, and shitty professing, have everything to do with institutional directives and structures.  You can’t get something for nothing.  You can’t expect excellence if you don’t fund excellence.  And, sure, that’s the fault of the voting citizenry, and the state legislature, and it’s the fault of institutional culture, and it’s the fault of a lot of different things.  But honestly?  It’s not my fucking fault.

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Strange, But Nice

So we are in the middle of week 4 of our 16-week semester, and it’s at about this point that I finally feel like I’m starting to get to know my students and like we’re finally getting done with the “opening of the semester” stuff  in my courses and are now really able to start digging into the nitty gritty of the course content.  First major assignments are coming up, and in most of my courses we’re moving into reading material that was set up by the first weeks of “background” stuff.  This is all good.

But for me, I generally still feel like it’s early days.  I haven’t assigned real grades for anything yet.  I still don’t know some of my students’ names (though I am feeling like I have a pretty good handle on their personalities and the names will all stick by the time I hand back their first papers).

So what’s weird is that I’ve had a handful of students, independently of one another, volunteer to me how much they are enjoying my classes and how awesome I am as a teacher.  And it’s strange.

Students at my institution aren’t generally ass-kissers.  So I don’t actually think that they are intentionally sucking up, though maybe I have gotten the few suck-ups in our student population, just all in one semester?  But that does seem unlikely.  But it does seem odd that they are judging me favorably before I’ve even given them a grade.  Am I doing something different this semester?

Not really.  Not at all.  I will say that I like the “energy” of all of my classes this semester a great deal.  I know that sounds very hippie-dippy, but it’s the only way I know how to describe it.  Sometimes the “mix” is just good – whereas in other semesters, you have those classes where something is just “off.”  And there’s no rhyme or reason to it, as far as I can tell.  I mean, you can do your best to construct a good course, and to be high energy yourself as an instructor, but if the “vibe” in the class is lame, it’s going to be lame, no matter what the professor has planned.

But to give myself some credit (for I do think I deserve some) I think I am finally bearing the fruit of insisting a couple of years ago that I must under all circumstances have a consistent rotation of courses.  I’m not scrambling to do the reading, to prep assignments or to figure out what I’m going to do each day in class.  I am deeply familiar with the texts that I’m teaching, and I have an arsenal of activities and assignments that I can just pull out of the file for each course, and that means I can spend my time on engaging with my students as people, and on improvising based on their needs.  It’s a hell of a lot easier to deviate from one’s plan in a tactical and effective way when you know the plan inside and out.  It is so much easier to be energetic and happy when you’re not exhausted by reinventing the wheel each and every class period, each and every semester.  Yes, I teach four different preps each semester.  And no, that doesn’t work if I’m not repeating courses regularly.  That kind of schedule can really make you a bad teacher.

[Aside: that makes me think of the report that came out about how students do better if they had their first course in a field with an adjunct.  I think it's a dumb study, generally, for lots of reasons, but on the other hand, I am totally willing to accept that if I were teaching 4 sections of the same class, semester-in and semester-out, even if I had a shitty office and even if I had to do it at 4 different campuses, that might be better, for students, than what I was doing when I taught something nuts like 16 different courses (some online and some face to face) over a three year period.  It's difficult to be an effective teacher and to be on top of things with your actual students when you're just trying to keep your head above water with course design, reading, and assignment design.  Yes, under those conditions, you start to phone it in, if you've got tenure.  Because something's got to give.]

But really, who the hell knows what’s going on this semester and why I keep getting these positive reviews (from grad students, majors, and gen ed students alike).  Whatever.  It seems like I’m doing something right.  I’ll take it.

***

Oh!  And in other strange but good news, I agreed to participate in a pilot program with our library where I have a librarian imbedded in one of my courses, who is familiar with the research assignments that I’ve designed and who is going to proactively initiate contact with the students about things that might be helpful, blah blah blah.  This hasn’t entirely gotten off the ground yet (as I said, it’s early days), but I’ve explained what is going on to the students, and in one course I just returned their “topic proposal worksheets” (where they had a selection of 10 broad topics related to the course, and students actually went for 8 of the 10 topics, so that was shocking and amazing too!) for their annotated bibliography/lit review assignments.  I suggested to a few of them directly in comments that they could contact our imbedded librarian for help, and I also announced to the class when I returned the worksheets who our librarian is and that they can feel free to contact him.  This was this morning.  BY THIS AFTERNOON ONE OF THEM ALREADY GOT IN TOUCH WITH THE LIBRARIAN!!!  WHAT STRANGE WORLD IS THIS?!?!?!

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It’s that they are awesome.

What’s also great is that they keep in touch with me, and that they tell me about the awesomeness of their lives, whether it is in grad school (English fields) or professional school (law, mba, library science, etc.), or even in not going on to more school but in getting jobs, and that they, even while they are scared, understand how what they learned in my courses is what they needed to learn in order to succeed in their new lives.

I am a proud professor.  My students do me proud.  Indeed, I couldn’t be prouder.

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My students:

  • My freshmen have written excellent papers, and have spent the last week revising and revamping and caring about all the things.
  • 3/4 of my Gen Ed students turned their final assignments in early, because of a confusing situation with the dates on the Course Schedule that Is Our Bible. Normal gen ed students would have given themselves a pass – especially since the *day* on the course schedule was right, and I confirmed it in class.  But my awesome students – no, they didn’t take the pass.  I love that class.
  • The Survey students.  So unbelievable.  Even though it’s the survey.
  • My upper-level seminar: students are writing on 6 of the 7 books I’ve assigned.  Which is astonishing to me, especially since only 3 have a large critical conversation to support research papers by undergrads.  And the ideas?  So original and so interesting!  For serious!

Colleagues are terrible:

  • The battles in academia re so fierce because the stakes are so low.
  • I can’t even talk about it.  Just – NO!

The End of the Semester is the Worst:

  • Do I really need to explain this?
  • Apparently one does need to explain it to one’s boyfriend who isn’t an academic, but for serious?  It’s just terrible.  TERRIBLE.

The short version is this: I love my students, the colleague situation is not cool, and the end of the semester is hardcore terrible.  Expect to see me around these parts in a few weeks, when all this is over.

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I hate the metaphor of “spreading one’s seed” as an academic.  I think it’s gross, not only because of the whole “seed” business but also because it makes it seem like one’s students accomplishments are one’s own, and really, they aren’t.  But when my students and former students accomplish amazing things, I also feel unbelievably happy and proud to have taught them – not because I think that I am in any way “responsible” for their accomplishments or that I deserve credit, but rather because I feel so grateful that I attract the sort of students who go on to do awesome things. (In case you were wondering, from what I’ve seen, not all professors get to experience that particular joy.)

So what are my awesome students (former and current) up to?

Today:

  • Tattooed Student just got admitted to a very competitive MA program with full funding.
  • Rocking Student (who I actually saw at The Breeders show!) just got a promotion at work (she’s working in a staff position at a university).
  • BES got a named award that came with travel money for a paper that she presented at a conference in her dissertation field, plus she won an essay award from an allied organization of the MLA.
  • Law Student #1 is finishing up law school, got married, and was accepted for publication in Law Review in his second year and I believe is doing Law Review in his third year.
  • Law Student #2 is actually a current student, who was painfully shy when I first taught him a year and a half ago and has now come into his own and has been accepted with full funding to law school for next year.
  • CC Transfer has been accepted into a great MA program in Chicago to study poetry.
  • Hippie-ish Student from a while back went to that same MA program in Chicago, and is now getting his PhD at State Flagship.
  • Michael Fitzsimmons (do you get this reference?) is studying abroad in Barcelona with lots of scholarships to support him….
  • Mr. Frankenstein, who was accepted to and did his time in Teach for America in inner-city Midwestern City, is now, after teaching middle school for three years, working in that city’s education office, doing awesome shit.

And I’m sure I’m forgetting some people!  Again, their accomplishments are not my accomplishments.  But I do feel such gratitude that I know them and that I had any small part in getting them where they wanted to go!  And I feel such gratitude that I am a teacher who has the privilege to teach students with such wide-ranging abilities and ambitions.  And I feel such gratitude that I am a teacher who has students who want to keep in touch with her and tell her about their accomplishments!  I am a lucky, lucky professor.  And my students and former students are ridiculously cool.

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