Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not as easy as A-B-C

Today's NYT has an article about how much easier it is to raise K-12 students' math scores than it is to raise their reading scores. Here's the opening:

David Javsicas, a popular seventh-grade reading teacher known for urging students to act out dialogue in the books they read in class, sometimes feels wistful for the days when he taught math.

A quiz, he recalls, could quickly determine which concepts students had not yet learned. Then, "you teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it," he said.

Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. "It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective," he said.

Educators, policy makers and business leaders often fret about the state of math education, particularly in comparison with other countries. But reading comprehension may be a larger stumbling block.

As the article goes on to note, there are a lot of reasons for this. Math is a much more universal language, not as dependent on things like cultural context and not as intimately connected to home and family life (kids learn math in school, but they learn vocabulary, sentence structure, and the expression of complex ideas at home--and they're either introduced to books at a young age or they're not). It's not that math is easier, but at the lower levels it's more straightforward to teach or remediate in an academic setting.

But although the article mostly has implications from educational policy, testing, and teacher evaluation, it's surely relevant for those of us in higher ed, too. Those bozos in other departments who blame the English department when their students still can't write--even after a whole semester of freshman comp? Listen: writing is hard! It takes a long time to learn how to do well, especially if students enter with deficiencies. Those people who claim that the humanities are easy majors, because all students do is read books and talk about them? Not so!

As I point out to my Shakespeare students after we've spent 30 minutes looking at one speech and I can tell they're getting tired of being pushed to talk about individual words, images, or poetic devices, this is shit they do all the time without realizing it, whenever they ask a friend for an opinion about an email or text message they just received: "But what do you think it really means? Why did he use that word? Why that word?" We all know, on some level, that the words people choose and the way they arrange them mean more than their dictionary definitions convey. And the people who can best pick up on those meanings have an edge in life: they're quicker, more perceptive, and more versatile. They can tell signal from noise, they can recognize things that are implied but aren't stated explicitly. They tend to be better at moving among different worlds, tolerating ambiguity, and seeing possibilities.

Reading well is more than just comprehending a text's basic content--and even "basic content" is tough to comprehend for those without exposure to a wide range of styles and genres (a student who can read a scene from an Elizabethan play and summarize its plot is also someone who can identify the key components of a legal contract or an initial public offering). Being able to figure out how a text works, to recognize patterns and variations, to grasp primary meaning and any possible subtexts--those are major life skills. They're career sills. But they're not easily or quickly obtained ones.

Monday, May 27, 2013

When new media grows old

As of today, I've been blogging for eight years, seven of them as Flavia. Over the last couple of months I've been tagging my old posts, which also means I've been reading my old posts--but I'll spare you any reflections on them, my life, or the Things Blogging Has Done for Me.

Sometimes I think that blogging is over, as a medium--or at least that the kind of academic blogging I discovered eight years ago is over: the daily chit-chat and advice-seeking and community-building stuff has moved to Facebook and to Twitter, while many of those writing more serious reflections on the academy or politics have gone professional, joining group blogs or writing for magazines or otherwise forging links between their blogs and their careers.

These are both fine and useful developments; I don't mourn the livejournal mode of blogging, where we were all writing long posts every day about whateverthefuck. But this kind of sorting means those of us who are neither research-focused nor diaristic, who are no more interested in opinion journalism than in showy confessionalism, may feel a little at sea. I've never seriously considered not blogging, but as blogging and micro-blogging evolve into distinct forms catering to distinct audiences, I'm less sure exactly what it is that I'm doing, who my community is, or who I'm serving.

That said, I'm in no doubt about why I read the blogs I read or about the value they provide. For me, blog-reading is leisure reading: fun, informative, and somewhere on the spectrum between novels and newspapers. The blogs I want to read are idiosyncratic and personality-driven, well-written and reflective, with a strong character and voice regardless of the topics they cover. I don't want to read someone's public diary (even or especially if it's material that would better be kept private), and I don't want to read scholarly material unless I'm actually doing research or prepping for class. I like reading scholarship and I like chatting with both friends and colleagues on social media--but blogs do something different. They allow me access to a personality and an intelligence that I want to spend time with, whose mind I enjoy seeing at work, and who can craft a good paragraph.

Do I like all the bloggers I read, or think I'd enjoy spending an afternoon with them? Usually, but not always--and sometimes it's a qualified "like." I read blogs, really, for the same reason I read and study literature: to inhabit a specific intelligence and aesthetic and to learn more about the ways of being in the world.

As long as that's something that blogs can do, I guess I'll keep trying to do it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Office of alumi counter-relations and de-development

I've written before about how cluelessly patronizing and tone-deaf I find pretty much every fund-raising appeal from my alma mater, whether delivered by letter, email, or in person (I can't even talk about the go-get-'em-tiger speeches given by my class treasurer and reunion gift officer last year, which resembled nothing so much as a branch manager's exhortation to his team to meet that month's sales targets). But every single one pisses me off.

Here's the latest:

Dear fellow alumni,

It was about this time of year that each one of us carried that last armload of books back to the Library before graduating. What did you feel as you pushed them across the desk or slid them into the book drop—relief, joy, sadness, gratitude? Well, did you know that when you give to the Alumni Fund, you can choose to give directly to the Library through the "Library Resources" bucket? The Library puts your dollars to work immediately to ensure that its resources stay up-to-date, its expert librarians can help every inquiring student, and its couches are comfortable.

No matter how you took advantage of the Library during your time at [INRU], we hope you will join us in giving back today by designating your Alumni Fund gift for Library Resources! Visit [website] today.

Boola boola,
[Alumni Fund Officers]

Now, okay: I react especially negatively to this approach because I work in higher education and my own institution's library doesn't have half the resources (whether in the form of books, databases, or comfy couches) of my alma mater. But I don't think that's the whole of it; I have a hard time imagining this appeal being effective with anyone I know, even those outside of higher ed.--plenty of whom are sentimental about their college days and prone to nostalgic reveries about Saturdays spent in those grand reading rooms or prowling the stacks.

Because however callow and heedless we may have been in our youth, and however much we may have taken INRU's resources for granted, we've all been out in the world since then. We probably all have connections to or emotional investments in at least a dozen organizations with relatively shallow pockets: our local schools, arts organizations, places of worship, homeless shelters, and so on. If I'm nostalgic about my experiences in INRU's libraries? I'm going to give to a literacy organization, or a local library, or the library at my kid's school--not to an institution with a $20 billion endowment, whose libraries are nicer than those at 99% of the world's universities.

Maybe I just don't know anyone capable of giving truly big bucks--the donors the university really wants to cultivate--and maybe such people respond differently to such appeals. But as someone intensely fond of her alma mater and capable of donating annually in the low three figures (but who does not), what I want from a fundraising appeal is, first of all, a direct acknowledgement of the university's fabulous wealth. I want an acknowledgement that there are other charities out there that I might (and do) consider worthier.

That's the most important thing, actually: the acknowledgment that decades of need-blind admissions (and extremely generous financial aid) mean a lot of graduates neither come from money nor go on to it, and that even more graduates have an uncomfortable and ambivalent relationship to INRU's wealth. Then I'd like a pitch that explains why--despite those facts--I should still give: because the recession has cut into the endowment, forced them to freeze faculty lines, imperiled the university's ability to fully fund students with family incomes below $65,000. Whatever.

Maybe they can't do that second part, because it's not true. Fine. But imagining your alumni as living in a sentimental bubble, in love with nothing so much as their alma mater and untouched by any financial pressures of their own--well, that's gross. If those people exist, I don't even want to know them, much less be taken for one.

Wanna to know why I don't give even the minimal sum that covers the cost of my alumni magazine subscription? That's why. Boola boola.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gimmicks and gambits and bits

On the last day of classes I ran into one of my colleagues and we chatted about how things were winding down. He talked about the research presentations his students had done, and then he mentioned a particular student by name.

"You've had her before, right?"

Yes, I said, in three classes: two last semester and one this semester.

"I thought so. She's absorbed some of your teaching persona."

Now, it's one thing to know that one has a teaching persona and to be occasionally aware of dialing it up or down or modulating it for a given circumstance; it's another to think of it as something readily recognizable by others and available for appropriation.

But of course we've all constructed our teaching (and our paper-delivering and maybe even our networking-at-the-conference-bar) selves from somewhere, and usually from many somewheres: just as we pick up bits of knowledge and pedagogical tricks from our own teachers and colleagues, so do we pick up ways of embodying authority and collaboration or whatever else we do in the classroom. We choose the techniques and the modes that work with our own personalities and values, and we make them our own--but probably relatively few of us think we invented our teaching selves wholly from scratch.

As for me, I can't itemize all the parts of my teaching persona, and I'm sure I've been influenced by people I'd never suspect and in ways I don't recognize. But two of my college professors I can immediately point to as foundational.

Both of them were literature scholars, and both were young or young-seeming, though they were at different points in their careers and one was male and one was female. What they had in common, in addition to their youth, was a wacky, irreverent, and colloquial way of talking about the difficult texts they taught. I never doubted the ferocious intelligence of either, but they had a warm enthusiasm for the material that conveyed how much fun all this geeky arcana was to them. Both had a habit of paraphrasing or summarizing in hilarious shorthand ways (some of which I have preserved in notebooks or book margins to this day). And both dressed hyper-professionally, even extravagantly, perhaps to compensate for their youth and informality.

And, uh, that's me. I mean, I'm not either of those professors--not as a scholar and not as a personality. Probably no one who knew either of them and who knows me would recognize anything other than the vaguest of similarities. But I see it. The high-low approach that I associate with both professors is pretty central to my own self-presentation in the classroom, in part because it's what made me feel able to be a scholar, and to overcome my own insecurities and self-doubts. (The combination of dressing the fuck up and being relentlessly self-mocking means you can get away with a lot.)

I'm sure both those professors would be weirded out, were they to know how influential I feel their examples were for me; I'm a little weirded out to hear that one of my own students has apparently adopted some of the same mannerisms from me that I feel I learned from them. But I suppose it's a tribute, all around.


Do you have professors (or colleagues) whose personae you've adopted or adapted? And if so, what made the fit feel right?

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Editorial intimacy

I just received my copyedited book manuscript from the publisher. It's humbling. But awesome. But also humbling.

I'm lucky to be working with a press that still does real copyediting, as many now do not--and since I used to work in academic publishing, I take a geeky pleasure in reading through the copyedits and learning the right way to cite a particular kind of source or discovering that someone caught my inconsistent capitalization of a particular term and standardized it. Though I'm surely fussier about consistency and formatting than the average writer, I know I'm not a professional. It's reassuring to have someone else scrutinizing every sentence, every usage, and every punctuation mark.

At the same time, that scrutiny involves a peculiar intimacy:

-Your copy editor knows all your darkest secrets, including exactly how often you begin a sentence with "However" or "But although." Worse, he wants you to change. Why can't he just love you the way you are?

-Your copy editor flags and rewrites any unusual turns of phrase. Some of them are genuinely better his way. But others--you think, defensively--have a better rhythm or effect as originally written.

-But you don't want to be that writer: the academic who believes herself to have a marvelous, original style and clings to her irritating tics and precious locutions.

-And when it turns out that your copy editor is someone you know and like and used to work with--a very experienced senior editor whose first query bubble is actually a sweet little note re-introducing himself and congratulating you on the book? Well, you really can't write him off as some fussbudget in a green eyeshade.

Guess it's lucky I have a blog audience on whom I can continue to inflict my worst writerly indulgences and bad habits.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Welcome to the panopticon, girls and boys

While grading papers for my two Shakespeare classes, I made a distressing discovery: 25% of them were on the same topic. They weren't just responding to the same prompt, but applying that prompt to the same rather narrow subtopic--a subtopic that was not among the handful I'd suggested.

You know what came next: I Googled it, and discovered that there are approximately a million hits for this topic. It comes up in every discussion of the relevant play and there are dozens of free essays available on the web.

It also happens to be a stupid topic. It's simultaneously obvious and really difficult to do well; if anyone had run it by me, I'd have warned him off. But because it's so obvious, and suggests only a couple of possible lines of argumentation, it's impossible to tell whether any given essay is borrowing ideas from the internet, recapitulating a half-remembered discussion from high school, or doing original (if uninspired) work. Nothing is directly plagiarized: I put in the long hours ascertaining that. But other than writing a motherfucking airtight prompt for next time, what's a girl to do?

I did the only thing I felt I could: I announced to both classes that I believed a number of their essays--giving no specifics--contained ideas derived from uncited sources. I emphasized that it was okay to get information or inspiration from elsewhere, if they were otherwise doing original work, but that they absolutely needed to credit all sources. I told them I would give them 48 hours to get me a new bibliography (and, if necessary, a new copy of their paper with any previously-omitted citations), but that otherwise their grades would be affected.

I should have been able to predict the results.

My students examined their consciences, and at least dozen emailed me confessions. One acknowledged that he hadn't cited a source for the date of the battle of Actium. Another revealed that her decision to write about women in Coriolanus had been inspired by a discussion about gender roles in her Russian Novel class--and she apologized for not crediting that professor. They were, all of them, so very sorry.

I guess guilt-tripping is never a waste.