Monday, November 17, 2008

Danger: Rage Level Rising

In general, it would be a lie say that I'm not an angry person. I may not be some kind of Sam Kinison figure (AHHHHHH!!!), but I'm not exactly all sweetness and light. I like to think that I've moved to address this character flaw by somehow making my anger at the world both conversational ("Hey, aren't you mad about x?") and humorous (picture hands flailing here. It's a visual thing.). This week however---and yes, I realize that it's only Monday---seems to be the moment at which I can make issues neither social nor funny.

Issue #1: the not-new but consistently unbelievable situation in which people who work together have no respect for each others' disciplines, even as they profit from the involvement of those same people. Somewhere down deep, my code of ethics simply requires that I have a baseline (no matter how low) for a modicum of belief that my colleagues do something important. Even if it's not important to me, per se, it's important. That seems like a given, right? But this week, I got an earful from a school colleague who talked to a member of the granny mafia, and she gave him an earful about how useless--nay, detrimental!--mine and Yogini's research and teaching foci are to the field. Meanwhile, our department rolls out a new concentration in said field, and when the administration asks: "what's new and exciting in your department?" my colleague brings up this minor every chance she gets. Damn! That's cold as ice!

Issue #2: The students in my media class are moving into their final group projects. For the past 12 weeks, we've been viewing, discussing and writing about the conventions of a genre, and discussing what makes that genre work. Each week, there is a specific individual assignment wherein the students analyze the relationship between the viewing and the ideological impact of the text. As they design their final projects, then, we've been talking a lot about the ideological message they want their film to put forward. Now, after two conferences, I have a group that is simply making an incredibly homophobic project. Under the guise of "social critique." If it's social critique, then I'm going to have to go back and re-examine Amos and Andy. They insist that it won't come across that way when they actually make it. Sigh. [Senor Fluff's solution is to suggest to the group that it's reflective of their own deepest fantasies. Tempting...]

Issue #3: I've been having a long-standing conversation with a student about her research paper. First she couldn't come up with a topic; then she couldn't arrive at a text. Throughout, I encouraged her to come and meet with me. No dice. After several concerned emails and draft comments in which I essentially wrote three sample arguments based on her meandering thoughts collected from informal writing over the course of the semester, she locates a school of critical thought and a primary text. But we're not out of the woods yet! Multiple emails and questions about sources. The school of thought that she's interested in (we'll call it shmeader shmesponse) has a 30 year history, give or take. Yet she can't seem to find any sources on it. Or on gender criticism. Or on the author of the text. I just read another draft of her paper, which gives me six pages of her own ideas of what shmeader shmesponse is, with absolutely no reference to the critics or their theories. Because she still can't find sources---"do you have any more ideas for search terms?" The good news is that this is the capstone course, so the fact that she's so lost means that she's learned nothing in the program, and that she'll soon cycle out of it. Except that she's registered for another of my classes in the spring. Wherein I had planned to recycle a lot of material from this course.

God help me if there is some sort of Hegelian synthesis at work here. I prefer to think that they are isolated and passing incidents (except for the first, which is consistent, long-term, and unsurprising). But man, if someone has a ray of hope to shine on my swirling pit of rage, bring it the fuck on.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Student Autonomy?

Today, I stole one of my previous colleague's excellent ideas: I took my seminar students on a field trip to the research library.

In a million years, it never would have occurred to me to do this. As much as I want to see my students for the people they are, I can't help but fall back, sometimes, on assuming what they will or can do---because I did it when I was their age. As an undergrad, I happily drove all over hell and gone to various bookstores and libraries to get what I wanted. But students at Askesis, I have to remind myself, are different. Despite the fact that Big Research U. is 5 minutes up the road, many have never been, and are intimidated by the entire process of navigating the campus, and then actually using the library once they get there. As we rode back on the bus, there were a number of comments like: "We've been moving for 5 minutes and we're not even off the campus yet!" and "The most impressive thing is that they have a Wendy's on campus." :)

One of the things that I loved about the trip was the way that they rather effortlessly shared their knowledge with one another. C. knows the bus system because she uses it all the time, and so she made sure we got on the right one. T., who drove there on her own so she could go straight to work afterwards, got there before the rest of us, and so she was all too happy to explain how we needed guest log-ins for the catalog, and how the reference librarians could help us. M and L and K found that their books were in similar sections, and so I saw them roaming the stacks in packs.

One of the refrains that's emerging in this course is one that always takes me by surprise: "I've never gotten to choose what I wanted to write a paper on before."


On the one hand, I can't imagine that that's true. But maybe? It's certainly the case that some of my colleagues are dictatorial about student research. [My favorite is the one that requires students to read all of the course material BEFORE the class begins, and to choose a paper topic in the first week.] When pressed on the point, the students adjust their statement: "Well, I could choose between some options, but not just anything I wanted." [For the record, they do have specific parameters in my class. It's just that they're based on genre, not on time period.]

I've been turning that refrain around and around in my head all afternoon. Because, really, what's the frickin' POINT of being an English major if you can't write about what you want?! Honestly, if you're going to have to write what someone tells you to write, then you may as well be a business major. And yet, as I think about their experience navigating Big Research U., I have to revise my views a bit. Writing what you want is a lot like going up the road to Big Research U. for the first time. You don't know what you're doing, it's confusing, you have to constantly ask people what to do. You have to be willing to wander, and to live in the wandering for awhile, until you begin to make your way toward the knowledge you came there for. As many of my students said, before we went: "I need someone to hold my hand, or else I won't go."

It's certainly true that some of them are still in the wandering stage. Perhaps more realistically, some are in the I've-been-lost-in-the-wild-for-weeks-and-I'm-hungry-and-tired-and-panicked wandering stage. And if I'd been more dictatorial, they'd be further along in their research and in their drafts by now. But to listen to them work through ideas that are really their own, for what they perceive as the first time, feels well worth the price of progress.

If I'm to take my own metaphor seriously here (that's the one in which library visit=independent research/writing process. You got that, right?), then I would need to think carefully about how to set up more intellectual "field trips," in which they can get a buddy and try something new and scary together. Where they figure out which person knows the bus system, which person knows the campus, and which knows how to work with the librarians, and pool that collective knowledge to get to their own individual goals.

Somewhere in the pedagogical landscape, there is application of the perfect amount of handholding that gets students to their own work. Until I figure that out, I highly recommend the field trip. Pack a lunch, and keep your hands and arms inside the bus at all times.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008



I've been obsessively watching cached video from CNN, MSNBC and YouTube this morning, as well as reading the NY Times, Politico, and the Huffington Post; I still can't quite believe Obama is our next president. I even performed the digital equivalent of face-slapping: I looked at Fox News online.

Slowly, slowly, it's sinking in, and the proclamations are out in force: this is an historic end to racial barriers; this is a decisive victory for the Democratic Party; this is a victory for democracy, which hasn't seen so many participating in voting since women's suffrage was on the ballot; this is a victory of hope over fear.

My cynicism prevents me from buying into all of those, even as much as I want to (and as much as they make me secretly weepy---don't tell!).

But I just watched Obama's victory speech, and I can decisively say this: it is a victory for grammar. A victory for syntax and enlarged vocabulary. A victory for diction, and for language for all Americans, and every global citizen who comes within earshot of a Presidential Address.

Of the many things to be thankful for on this post-election day, let's not forget the small things.