Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gifts of the 80s

Don't say we didn't learn anything from the age of Reagan.

Case in point? Today, I had to figure out what would rescue a slightly-too-tight pencil skirt. Answer? A really over-sized sweater. All hail Belinda Carlisle. Sadly, I didn't have time to cut the neck out of it.

Write to Teach?

You know, when I gripe about faculty at Askesis U. who haven't picked up a book in their field in 20 years, or who want to base their promotion to full professor on the article that they published 16 years ago in order to be promoted to associate, it's grounded on the fuzzy idea that in order to be an effective faculty member, you have to be in touch with how your field has evolved, and with the shifts in academic thought in general. Over the past year, however, I'm beginning to see a different compulsion for faculty research and publication: compassion.

I've had two upper-division classes this year, both of which require a big ol' research paper. And because I've been working closely on a number of projects with Yogini (writing teacher extraordinaire), I've been spending a lot of time scaffolding assignments that help the students get to the final product. Let me say what we already know: the big research paper? Intimidating. Scary. A Project with no Clear System of Approach. The Measure of Your Worth as a Major and perhaps as a Human. I don't want to put words in my students' mouths, but when I joke around with them about the paper, these are the ones that I use. I also find myself saying, over and over again: "Don't Panic." and "Come see me." and "let's think about how to adjust the assignment to fit you, rather than adjusting you to the assignment."

And where does all of this warm fuzziness come from, when we have plenty of evidence that I'm often a cold hard bitch of a grader? (True confessions: I called myself "a hag for close reading" in class yesterday.)

As any reader of this blog knows, I am not a confident or effortless writer. Pick any month from the archive and you'll see my predictable reaction to any writing task, which includes the words "paralysis," "self-flagellation," "procrastination," "self-doubt," etc. etc. Last week, a student showed up for her conference in a hairshirt---all, "my problem with research is that I have to read everything or else I'm not really true to the ideas," and "I've got so much information I don't know what to do with it," and "I have all of this stuff to say that I can't get it out."

When I said the word "paralysis" to her, she looked at me like I had just explained her whole life.

If the injunction to doctors is "physician, heal thyself," for academics it might be "professor, become your student." I certainly don't want to project my difficulties onto my students, but I see their struggles in a whole new light when they so closely mirror my own. Maybe somewhere out there, there's a professor who has no problems writing---her shit just writes itself. But for the rest of us, it's a useful reminder that we may have some significant, personal insight into the question "why can't she just write the paper?"

Of course, we can only have that insight if we've struggled, ourselves, with the difficulties of argument, of organization, of projected expectations of how our peers will judge our work. All of a sudden, the necessity of an actively researching faculty at a teaching institution is not just to mimic the expectations set by R1 schools; it becomes a pedagogical exigency. To really teach students to write, you have to write too. (And then you have to be able to see that you're not all that far away from your students, I suppose, but that's another post entirely.)

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lounging on my Laurels

Apparently, along with tenure comes lots and lots of requests to observe other people's courses. This completely makes sense to me; the number of senior faculty members that I trusted to write observations for me---which go in the big binder from hell---were few and far between. So this is not the kind of request where I even think about saying no.

Observing other good teachers is, on the one hand, a delightful experience. It gives you something of a student's eye view to the classroom. It can show you how your own content and pedagogy connect with your colleagues. It can make you privy to a whole different side of your colleagues--even the ones you thought you knew pretty well. And, for me, it can make me realize how lazy I've become as a teacher.

There are certain things, I think, that have prevented me from getting hit in the face with the consequences of my own laziness. For the most part, students tend to not hate my classes. I suppose I'm relatively entertaining, and the classes are pretty interactive. And I'll stand by this til I die: letting students know that you actually give a crap about what they think goes a long, long way.

So, without any mutinies or absolutely horrendous classroom experiences, I haven't really been all that attuned to how totally boring I've become. But going to other people's classes sure have. One of my colleagues has convinced students to do some marvelous multi-media projects. In spite of the griping and moaning that they did while they were working, the final projects were great fun, and they were all aglow about everything that they had learned. In another colleague's class, the students had developed these terrific patterns of interaction with each other; it was just a great conversation to watch.

Visiting other classes reminded me going to class with a list of passages and depending on my conversational skilz to tie everything together is just not really enough. In general, "enough" isn't really enough. What am I doing to get excited about the text? What am I doing to get them excited about it? What should I be doing to engage those who aren't already hooked, and what am I doing to push those who are? I fear that this is the kind of habit that creeps up on you, particularly when there are no checks in place (hello, no post-tenure review!!). And I wish, in some ways, that my students were harder to please (not in the Marcia sense, but in the "we're not willing to settle for "you're not sadistic or insulting so we love you!"). But in the absence of these external motivations, I'm going to have to muster up my own.

Registration is upon us, and I'm watching my courses fill pretty quickly, but this is a reminder to myself to do better by those students. Let's see what I can do to be a more engaged, and engaging teacher.

[And a quick note to myself? The theme for the post-tenure year is clearly "self-motivation."]

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Friday, April 03, 2009

One Per Customer

Every semester, I get one. And I suppose I should be happy that it's only one. I should be happy about more, actually; for instance, I very seldom get the student who wants to argue about their end-of semester grade. Full disclosure here: a few years ago I moved to a spreadsheet model for student grades, which I now distribute early on in the semester so that students get a sense of how they're overall grades stack up. I've found that this really cuts down on the squabbling. But apparently, the unintended effect is that one student a semester (and please Lord, let it only be one) wants to argue with me about a discussion grade. And often, it's not the entire semester discussion grade, it's one or two days of it. Math is not my strong point, but it does shock me, I have to say, that they're focused on something that represents .03% of the final grade as opposed to the assignments worth, say 20%...

I thought that I was meeting with, hmmm, let's call her Marcia, for reasons that all you Brady Bunch fans will recognize. Right, so I thought I was meeting with Marcia to discuss the upcoming assignments. Which we did, in detail. We chatted amiably about the class, the readings thus far, about particular ways of approaching the assignment, etc. And then after about 2o minutes, she whips out a spreadsheet from a month ago, informs me she's unhappy with the grade and that she's already seen the dean about it. Hello, ambush!

I'll spare you the details here that are specific to Marcia's case, because they're utterly cliched. One of the things that shocked me about the Marcias of the last few semesters (other than their fixation on the detail) is the refusal to admit any form of wrongdoing whatsoever. At all. In the slightest bit. Marcia 2009 is, to my mind, a particularly egregious example of this: when I made it clear that her grade for the day reflected the fact that she had caused someone else to get a bad discussion grade because she prevented her from participating, she looked me dead in the eye and said she would never penalize another student for someone else's behavior. Whoa.

The Marcias, I find, are consistently good students. They pay attention, they participate, they do the work, they work hard. They scrutinize the f'ing syllabus. At Askesis, they all happen to be from the exact same major, which really makes me wonder what goes on in that department. And they share this singularly unattractive quality of refusing to acknowlege that there might be the slightest bit of responsiblity that accrues to them.

Right before the waterworks started with Marcia 2009, she made the defeatist (and to my mind, manipulative) comment that in the end, I was the teacher, and thus what could she do? My initial internal reaction was to contradict her, but I said nothing. And an hour after our tear-laden ambush meeting, I really considered compromising between the grade I thought was fair and the one she wanted.

After a night of fitful sleep, however, I've revised my view. Of my many afflictions, two are at war here: my deep, visceral need for justice, which manifests in the "just say you were wrong!!!"; and the namby-pamby desire to have everyone agree. The spirit of compromise is clearly rooted in the latter, while it deeply offends the former.

But what I realized at 4:28 this morning is that Marcia is right: I am the teacher, and with that role comes the need to exercise power, as much as I want to deny it. Trying to compromise is about, I think, wanting to pretend that the student-teacher power dynamic doesn't exist, or that somehow it would represent the acknowledgment of wrong-doing on her part, which would ease my guilt at applying power. But there's just no reason for it, other than to make me feel better, and to fool myself into believing that we've seen eye to eye, in some way. If I had to guess, Marcia feels empowered to have these kinds of "conversations" because they've been effective for her in the past, and I'm not down with reinforcing that lesson.

So, thanks, Marcias past, present, and future, for reminding me that sometimes I need to acknowlege, question, and apply the power of my station, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. [And everyone keep your fingers crossed that there's only a really ugly course evaluation to come out of this, and not an official grievance lodged. K Thax Bai.]