Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Double the pleasure, double the fun?

For only my second time at RU, I'm teaching two sections of the same class: Shakespeare's histories & tragedies. And until we hire a second Early Modernist, this is likely to be my future.

I don't wish to do this for too long, both because it hamstrings my schedule (preventing me from offering as full a range of classes in my specialty as I normally do) and because it isn't in our students' best scheduling interests, either (when only one person teaches Shakespeare, the sections get taught on the same day, usually back-to-back, and we aren't able to offer both Comedies & Romances and Histories & Tragedies in the same semester). In the short term, though, it's agreeable enough. I only have two preps, and one of them is a course that, at this point, is more like half a prep: after teaching Shakespeare every semester for seven and a half years, the class comes out of the box fully assembled. All I have to do is re-read the plays (and in a tough week, even that isn't necessary). And yet it's a reliably rewarding class to teach.

Despite these advantages, teaching two sections of the same class back-to-back is weird, at least for those of us who don't do it routinely (as I know many of my readers do). So far I haven't had trouble keeping track of where we left off in each class during our previous class meeting--that's something I make a conscious effort to remember--but I'm completely unable to remember any other differences in class discussion. Which section did I talk to about Early Modern sodomy laws? No clue. In which class did someone ask me about the origin of the title "Prince of Wales," and I promised to look up its history? Couldn't tell ya.

I'm also more likely to fall into that self-alienated space where I feel I'm watching some wind-up version of myself run through a predetermined series of rhetorical and pedagogical jumping jacks. And sometimes, auto-pilot takes over entirely: yesterday I began my second section, like my first, by saying "okay! now before we turn to the text, let me collect all your papers--" and only when half the class visibly blanched did I remember that, oops! My first section had papers due, but the second still had another week. (And then it took me many precious minutes to calm down the ensuing collective freak-outery.)

But there are also ways in which teaching two sections of the same class can keep one on one's toes. It's fun to see what two different groups of students will respond to in a given scene, and sometimes the readings go in interestingly different directions. It's also fun, in a way, to try to maintain the integrity of my lesson plan--which is to say, to make sure I hit a few of the same major points--in classes that may have wildly different interests or that move unevenly through the same material: one of my classes is always running long, which means I usually have to cut or summarize on the fly, while the other class often runs a little short and so gets spontaneous additional discussion. I like the puzzle-solving element of that: trying to keep both on the same reading schedule, covering the same big ideas, while responding to whatever arises organically in each one.


Do you teach multiple sections of the same class? What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


No time for a proper post, as a four-day weekend frolicking in NYC means I get to spend my actual birthday catching up on all the grading and committee work I neglected during those days. As for moving definitively into my late thirties, I Have Thoughts About That--but for the most part, I'm just happy to be here.

Since my teens, I've always been expecting my death. Not in a dramatic or anxious or depressive way; just in the fatalistic certitude that this would be the plane to crash, or I'd never live to complete X project. Though this conviction is always with me, it seems to strengthen in proportion to how invested I am in completing X--and so it was that Thursday night saw me contemplating leaving written instructions as to the location and state of my book manuscript files. In the end, though, the logic puzzle of what clothes to pack was too preoccupying and I never got around to it. Astonishingly, both my flights took off and landed without incident, and here I am.

I may be less sanguine about aging than I used to be, but it's sure better than the alternative.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Candidate dinners

So yeah: we're in the midst of a swarm of job candidate visits. Between last year and this year we're on track to have at least eleven candidates out, at least nine of whom I'll have had dinner with. I enjoy getting a chance to know our candidates better, in a lower-stakes environment, and I feel strongly that social events are one of the ways that we sell ourselves to candidates. Still, it's work, and I'm increasingly cranky about the inequities in how this work gets distributed.

I don't mind that I go to more candidate dinners than most of my colleagues. I sign up to do it, after all--and since I live in the city where we usually take candidates to dinner, and since I don't have children with bedtimes or after-school activities to negotiate, I figure that this is an easier work obligation for me to manage than it is for some of my colleagues. (Most of whom are great about stepping up in other areas, including other parts of the on-campus interview process.)

The problem is that we don't have a departmental charge account, which means that one person always puts the whole meal on his or her credit card, handles all the reimbursement paperwork--and then, for reasons both institutional and interpersonal always, always gets stiffed.

First off, since we're a state institution, alcohol isn't covered. Which is okay, but if we want the candidate to feel welcome to have a drink or two (and I do!), we have to order drinks ourselves and cover the complete bar tab. This also isn't a big deal--even at the fanciest restaurants in town, even the fanciest cocktails are relatively cheap, and I'm sure we're all happy to pitch in an extra three dollars or whatever to cover the candidate's drinks. Except that most people don't have cash on hand, and don't remember two days later. Seriously: not counting my own drinks or my share of the candidates' drinks, I'm still owed at least $60 in booze from last year.

Secondly, the state will only reimburse us for a tip of up 15%. And dude, I rarely give 15%. Fifteen percent, to me, means the service was somewhere south of mediocre. Moreover, at a candidate dinner, we have complicated paperwork that we have to explain to the server and have approved by the server's manager--and we need a special receipt, and we don't pay taxes on anything--and you know what? If I'm making a server deal with that on top of our orders, there's no way I'm paying less than 20%. The difference doesn't amount to much--maybe $5-7 a meal--and it's worth it to me to see that our server is treated right. But over several meals, it starts to add up.

And finally, I've screwed up the paperwork before and not gotten reimbursed at all.

(Oh, and don't get me started about the restaurants that won't honor our tax-exempt paperwork. Or the time the manager of a swanky restaurant came over and lectured us, in front of a candidate, about how he got audited for TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS and it's all the fault of inconsiderate people like us and our bogus claims of tax-exemption.)

The point is, I don't mind spending $20 or whatever out of pocket to see that a candidate is treated well and that our server isn't stiffed. And I don't mind having the charge sit on my card for the six weeks or however long it takes to get reimbursed. But I do mind doing this multiple times per hiring season.


I'm sure that some of my readers have departmental charge accounts and no cost restrictions--but I'd bet most of us are subject to financial or other limitations. So tell me: how do candidate dinners work at your institution? What are your restrictions, how do you work within them, and how do you spread the burden (in terms of time or money) more equitably?

Monday, February 04, 2013

Mentoring junior faculty

As several of my recent posts have suggested, I'm increasingly preoccupied with the question of mentorship--and, these days, I'm more interested in the giving end than the receiving. (Which isn't to say that I don't still need mentors myself, because God knows I'll attach myself with burr-like tenacity to anyone who shows the slightest willingness to play that role.)

However, I'm still figuring out what it means to be a mentor, and I'm sorting through my own conflicting impulses: it's possible that I'm just looking for disciples to impress and for occasions to wax oracular. But it's also true that we all gain real, pragmatic wisdom as we move through grad school and our first years on a job, and that shit's wasted if we don't share it.

It's not just our grad students or junior colleagues who suffer if we don't share what we've learned; it's our students and our departments, and more broadly our profession. A blogger near and dear to my heart makes this case compellingly in one of the more interesting treatments I've read of the Harvard cheating scandal. Dr. Cleveland suggests that we read that scandal, at least partly, as one in which a junior faculty member was poorly mentored, or rejected mentoring, or both:

New PhDs do not turn into fully professional members of the faculty overnight, or by themselves. It is the responsibility of a junior professor's senior colleagues to guide her or his professional development. . . . Mentoring junior colleagues is not simply part of an obligation to the colleagues themselves, but to the students. If you put students in a classroom with a relatively inexperienced teacher and you give that teacher no professional feedback or guidance, bad things can happen. In this case, bad things did. A large lecture class ended with at least a quarter of the students suspended and more on probation. The school has taken a beating in the press. And a promising young scholar's career has crashed and burned so badly that I can smell the smoke from here. My question is: where were this person's senior colleagues? Where was his department chair? What advice were these people giving him?

[. . . .]

[E]xactly what was said to him about teaching is an open question. He would almost certainly have been told both that his teaching should be good, whatever "good" means, but also that he should be careful not to spend so much time on teaching that his research suffered. Teach well, but budget the time you spend teaching. That's already a pretty complicated message for a brand-new professor who's working up all his courses from scratch and learning to teach completely new kinds of courses. (No graduate student oversees a course with hundreds of undergrads and a team of teaching assistants.) But then the really thorny question: what does the university mean when it says good teaching? What actual benchmarks does that imply?

Is the goal to keep your teaching evaluation numbers high? That goal could pretty easily lead a new faculty member to turn a large lecture course into popular gut for students seeking easy A's. And teaching such a course would also be less time-consuming, for someone being urged to protect his weekly research time, than teaching a class with more challenging assignments and tougher expectations. So a young teacher creating a popular if notoriously easy class might think he was acting on the advice he had been given. On the other hand, a young teacher developing a reputation as a soft grader might also get pushback from his colleagues, and be urged to shed that reputation. Even at a school where grade-inflation is the norm, standing out as an easier-than-normal grader is risky.

There's more, but I'll let you read it on your own. Most of us don't teach at institutions with the kinds of pressures this particular professor was facing--or where the consequences of screwing up a class would be so dire or so public--but it's worth thinking about the ways in which our colleagues' successes and failures are also, to some degree, our own.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Random bullets of again with the start of the semester

  • RU's spring term starts late, but we're now back in the thick of it. At least it's light past 5.30 p.m. And maybe in six weeks it'll stop snowing.
  • Because we start so late, our job candidates come out pretty much the second the semester begins. I don't know how this is for candidates, but it's a little frantic-making to be photocopying syllabi and dealing with last-minute registration bullshit while trying to be all smiley and welcome-to-our-world!
  • That said, I have the cushiest teaching schedule of my entire career: just two preps, both of them extremely familiar (two sections of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies and a graduate Milton class; though I haven't taught the graduate version in a while, I taught a Milton senior seminar just last term)
  • Despite my anxieties, my Milton class looks great. It's a small class and many of my students aren't lit students (nearly half are creative writers and a couple are in the M.Ed. program), but they're a good bunch with good energy.
  • Somehow I always forget that M.A. students really are qualitatively different from undergraduates. They're both fun groups to teach, but I'm looking forward to how much I'll learn from my grad class.
  • My actual schedule is also awesome: TWTh, with both my Shakespeare classes mid/late afternoon on TTh and Milton on W night. It means going out to campus an extra day every week, but it's much less exhausting.
  • Given the total fabulosity of my schedule, surely I'll have nothing whatsoever to complain about for the rest of the semester. Right?
  • Right?
  • Just you watch.